The fate of the embattled Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport was front and center at a public hearing in Augusta on Monday.
For more than a year, prison guards, local employers and town administrators have joined forces in an uphill battle to keep the doors open at the minimum-security prison. Gov. Paul LePage has vowed to close it, arguing that it’s not worth the $5 million a year to keep it operating.
Last year, after the administration encountered strong opposition from lawmakers in both parties, he agreed to keep it open through the end of the fiscal year in June.
Democratic Rep. Robert Alley of Beals told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that residents of Washington County have had enough.
“The prison has been on a yo-yo now, for years,” he said. “These workers and people who depend on the facilities need to know what’s coming and the future of this facility should be based on reason and not the whim of the governor.”
Alley and other lawmakers are supporting LD 1704, a bill that would provide $5.5 million in funding to keep the prison running for the next fiscal year. The measure would also require the Department of Corrections to conduct a thorough analysis to determine what effect the facility’s closure would have on prisoners, their families and the communities of Washington County.
“In many ways, this facility is part of the community fabric, the very essence of and a testament to the rugged nature of the folks back home,” said Republican Rep. William Tuell of East Machias, the bill’s sponsor. “The officers and staff are not here today and gone tomorrow. They are leading citizens in our communities. They go to our churches. They are at basketball games, benefit suppers and they rally for one another when the chips are down.”
Republican state Sen. Joyce Maker of Calais also testified in favor of the bill.
“We need to look at how closure would impact other correctional facilities in the state. Where would the inmates go? Would some of the prisoners be released? We also need to study the impact on the local community and economy in Washington County,” she said.
Maker said that the administration’s decision last year to commute the sentences of some prisoners while trying to close DCF raised serious questions about how the Corrections Department plans to deal with prison overcrowding.
Several current and former corrections staff members at DCF also appeared before the committee, but insisted that they had come to speak as private citizens. Ann Grange, a teacher at the facility, testified that there’s a reason for that, citing a memo she said was sent to staff from the Department of Corrections.
“On Thursday, we received an email through the commissioner that we were to come here on our own time and we were not — not, and this was all in bold print — to represent DCF or the Department of Corrections but ourselves as citizens,” she said. “And then in small print, it said be careful, because the governor is listening — that’s what we got told.”
No members of the administration were present to testify. Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick submitted a written statement in opposition to the bill, saying that the administration still intends to close the facility.
LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz issued a written statement saying that the governor will not bow to local political pressure and remains convinced that it is not in the state’s best interest to keep the facility open.