Surprise Shutdown of Maine Prison Leads to Controversy, Court Order
by Christopher Zoukis
In a sudden move that local residents called a “Gestapo tactic,” Maine Governor Paul LePage ordered the closure of a small prison in rural Washington County. The Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF), with a capacity for up to 148 prisoners, was shuttered at 4:30 a.m. on February 9, 2018. The 63 prisoners housed there at the time, many of whom were employed in the local community in a work-release program, were transferred to the Mountain View Correctional Facility.
Located in Machiasport, DCF had 46 employees and cost the state about $5 million a year to operate. Governor LePage had previously threatened to close the prison, which his communications director, Peter Steele, called “expensive and inefficient to run.” According to a statement from LePage, the legislature was not going to fund the facility in its 2018-2020 budget, thus it made sense to shutter it early.
“The Legislature did not fund for the total two-year biennial, and at some point it was going to close,” the governor said. “I saw today as an ability to save the state a little bit more money.”
Jim Mackie, a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 93, said the closure came as a complete surprise to DCF workers, who were placed on paid administrative leave pending lay-offs.
“Nobody knew,” he stated. “They did this under the cover of darkness. We’re all just kind of in a reaction mode this morning.”
Following the closure, the union hired attorney David Webbert, who immediately filed suit to block the action. The lawsuit was joined by the state’s Attorney General, Janet Mills, and the Washington County Commission.
In March 2018, Maine Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy granted a temporary injunction, ordering the state to reopen the facility until the legislature could decide its fate. But funding for the prison was set to run out in June 2018, and it was not clear that state lawmakers would authorize future funding.
Just before the court ruled, Governor LePage announced his support for a bill sponsored by state Senator Joyce Maker to create a pre-release center in Washington County. But LePage also said he wanted to sell the DCF property and limit the new center to 20 beds for low-risk prisoners in work-release programs. Senator Maker said that wasn’t enough, and that proponents of keeping the prison open were “right in trying to fight this.”
After the court’s ruling, the governor reopened the prison in a limited way, recalling just nine employees to work. His attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, said the law “specifically defers” to the Commissioner of Correction, appointed by LePage, “to decide how to operate the facility.”
Businesses in small communities where a prison is located often find themselves dependent on the economic benefits, such as wages paid to prison staffers. In the case of DCF, local businesses were also dependent on prison labor through work-release programs. Employers expressed shock and dismay when they woke up on February 10, 2018 to find their workers had been taken away during the night.
“We were just stunned,” said Carol Gee, the human resources manager at Lobster Trap. “If you go to work and [one-third] of your employees are gone, what are you supposed to do?”
The bill to reopen and fund the prison passed the legislature but was vetoed by Governor LePage on July 2, 2018, resulting in DCF’s second closure in less than six months.
“The Downeast Correctional Facility is an antiquated and unnecessary facility,” LePage wrote in his veto letter. “The Department of Correction is able to house and rehabilitate minimum-security prisoners at comparable facilities that cost less to operate. My administration is the third in a row that sought to end this wasteful use of taxpayer dollars – and the first to succeed.”
Sources: www.pressherald.com, www.mainepublic.org, www.bangordailynews.com, www.sunjournal.com