The LePage administration has agreed – for now – to stop removing equipment from the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.
Washington County commissioners filed an injunction this week to block the administration from dismantling the facility after inmates were abruptly removed last Friday. Attorney General Janet Mills has opted not to defend the state, prompting a stand-down while the LePage administration seeks counsel.
The agreement was announced in Kennebec Superior Court Wednesday. Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner says putting the brakes on any further action around the Downeast Correctional Facility – even temporarily – is critical.
“This is that moment, that breathing period,” says Gardner. “Ya know, everybody was acting way too fast.”
It started in the predawn hours Friday morning, when Department of Corrections personnel woke up inmates, boarded them onto buses, and sent them to facilities in Charleston and Warren. Most of the correctional facility's 55 employees were placed on administrative leave until their jobs are to be terminated in early March.
Then Monday the state started removing bunk beds.
“The governor had them moving at a fairly quick pace to get everything out of there and really render the facility not useful for anything,” says Mackie, a union rep for corrections officers.
Mackie represents one of two workers’ unions that are asking to join as intervenors in an injunction request filed by Washington County and Machiasport against the Department of Corrections. They have an ally in Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who decided not to represent the LePage administration and who also asked to join as an intervenor. The agreement made Wednesday to put things on hold is not a formal court order, but gives time for the LePage administration to seek counsel.
Though it's seen as a positive step by supporters of the Downeast Correctional Facility, some employees, like Daniel Ramsdell, say he's out of a job no matter what.
“I'm done. I cannot go back,” says Ramsdell.
Ramsdell says he's worked as a corrections officer for 26 years, and that he has to retire before his job is terminated on March 3rd so that he doesn't lose his benefits. It's such a tight timeframe, he says he can't wait to see if the Downeast Correctional Facility will reopen. But at age 55, he says he'll have to find another job.
“Washington County is a poor county,” says Ramsdell. “There's no jobs out there to replace these ones. It's not like Portland where you can go out and get a job that pays the same a mile down the road. We don't have that.”
Commissioner Chris Gardner says the Downeast Correctional Facility is economically important to the region, but that's not the only reason it should reopen. “Make no mistake. We don't want charity,” says Gardner. “We are fighting for this facility because we know how efficient it is. At any time that it is proven to be inefficient, after given a fair shake and consideration, as county commissioner, I'll personally put the lock on the gate.”
The fate of the facility will be considered on two fronts: through the Kennebec Superior Court and through the legislature. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide more than $5 million dollars in funding to restore the facility to allow time for a study on the effects of closing it.