Machiasport Jail Faces Closure on June 10th

By Lura Jackson

 

The Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport is now facing permanent closure on June 10th as a result of Governor Paul LePage’s proposed budget. The 46 state employees of the prison received layoff notices on Friday, May 19th. The announcement comes in spite of the previously rendered recommendations of the bipartisan Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which voted unanimously to keep the prison open following hours of testimony from the public.

Washington County representatives to the state legislature were deeply troubled by the announcement. “It’s incredibly frustrating that this unnecessary hardship was created despite the bipartisan wishes of the Legislature,” said Representative Anne Perry, D-Calais. “At a time when rural Maine continues to struggle to create and sustain good paying jobs, this closure will only add to Washington County’s challenges.”

“I can’t believe that, at a time when we have money in the budget, the Administration is still making reckless cuts that directly harm Washington County, which is already suffering economically,” said Representative Bob Alley, D-Beals. “What do we tell those workers? We had the money to keep your jobs afloat but chose instead to show you the door?”

Removing the state run prison from Washington County will necessitate the distribution of the prison’s 150 inmates to other parts of the state. According to Senator Joyce Maker, R-Calais, the state only has room for 75 inmates, meaning that 75 prisoners may have their sentences commuted. For inmates from Washington County that are sent to other parts of the state, their future releases will be further complicated by a lack of transportation back to their area of residence. 

The Department of Corrections asserts that the closure of the prison is “not a threat to public safety.”

According to some representatives, the governor’s move is an attempt to privatize the state’s prison industry. “This is a continuous pattern where Governor LePage has tried to outsource and privatize state run facilities and it’s costing Mainers their jobs,” said Rep. Charlotte Warren, House chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. In 2011, LePage was the only candidate to receive funding from the nation’s largest private prison operator, the Corrections Corporation of America. LePage received $25,000 in support from the corporation.

Closing the facility will have a profound impact on the Machiasport area. According to Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien, the area relies on inmate labor for many of its necessary tasks, including blueberry harvesting, mowing public parks, and performing carpentry repairs to nonprofits. Therrien estimates that inmate labor has saved the area hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years while simultaneously providing inmates with wages, experience, and job skills.

There may be one saving grace for the prison that will keep it open, at least if the understanding of Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner is correct. Pistner wrote in a letter to Maker in April that the governor lacks the authority necessary to close the prison without legislative support. “The Governor cannot unilaterally amend statutes without violating the separation of powers provisions in… the Maine Constitution,” Pistner wrote. Pistner elaborated that the budget establishes the prison as a discrete program and that it therefore cannot be eliminated from the budget by the executive branch. 

 

If the governor succeeds in eliminating the prison, it will save the state an estimated $5 million a year, according to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick. The state has been running at an average surplus of over $1 billion.