Down East Communities Say They’d Be Harmed By Prison’s Closure

Feb 23, 2017

For more than 30 years, the population in the Down East town of Machiasport has remained virtually unchanged, at about 1,100 residents. But that number could drop by more than 10 percent if state lawmakers agree to Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to close the Downeast Correctional Facility.

The closure would trim $5 million from the state budget, but opponents say the proposed closure would not only mean the loss of jobs, but also diminish the region’s labor supply.

Corrections Chief Joseph Fitzpatrick told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee last week that the math just doesn’t add up and that the state can no longer justify the continued operation of a regional prison to serve just 150 inmates. But state Rep. Robert Alley of Beals says the region cannot afford to lose the 51 jobs the prison provides.

“This is a very small number of people that we are talking about and there is no cost to this bill, should the facility stay open,” he says. “We owe these loyal, long-term employees who have given the best years of their life in service to the state. They deserve that much.”

And employers in the region, including David Whitney, say there’s more to the equation. The prison is not just one of the region’s largest employers, he says — it’s also a chief source of labor.

“In 2016, we sent out 452 W-2 forms — 31 of those were to inmates from the Downeast Correctional Facility,” he says.

Whitney owns and manages several businesses in the region, including the Whitney Wreath Co. He says the prisoners volunteer for work assignments at his company and for a number of nonprofit organizations in the area, and that would be hard to replace in one of the state’s poorest counties.

“My experience with these individuals is that they’re extraordinarily appreciative for the opportunity,” he says. “They’re very content to be at work. They come to work and they stay at work and they are very happy to be there — and they’re very respectful.”

In fact, many of the prisoners stay and work in the area after the end of their prison terms. Machiasport Selectman Jeff Davis says the local population is being sustained by increasing numbers of released inmates.

“We have in this town taxpaying residents that were once in the work program out of Downeast Correctional and are now taxpayers in the town of Machiasport,” he says.

“I really believe there’s an acceptance here of people who have made a mistake or a poor choice and neighbors tend to say, ‘Show me what you’ve got now,’” says Sharon Mack, the director for the Machias Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Mack says because the community is so accepting, the state’s corrections system should be trying to expand the Downeast Correctional Facility experience rather than eliminate it.

But state corrections officials say that the Downeast inmates could be housed more efficiently at other institutions, and that some could also be released into the community under a monitored ankle bracelet program.

“We are either going to be tough on crime or we are not going to be tough on crime, and putting folks out on the street who have not finished their sentences to me is a great folly,” says state Rep. William Tuell, an East Machias Republican.

Tuell says that solution doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

“I’m fine with people going to jail and paying their time and coming back, but I just feel that this letting people out on the street is sending a mixed message here,” he says.

More than 2,500 people have signed petitions opposing the closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility, which will be focus of additional legislative discussion in the coming weeks.