Washington County residents and former employees at the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) in Machiasport say the early morning closure of the minimum-security prison is a betrayal by the governor that they can't accept.
The prison's abrupt closure has stunned members of the region who now fear the economic consequences stemming from the loss of more than 50 jobs at DCF and the elimination of prison workers at area businesses.
It all started around 4:30 Friday morning. Heavily armed Department of Corrections personnel, backed up by Maine State Police, arrived at the Downeast Correctional Facility while it was still dark outside, woke up prisoners and began taking them out of their cells and loading them onto buses. Employees were ordered to leave – and not in the nicest of terms, according to Kevin Millay, a retired former employee at the prison who was on the scene to speak with reporters there.
"They didn't even communicate one iota, no way no nothing," Millay said. "They showed up with guns and say leave – that's their communication. Show up with guns, leave, here's your pink slip. The SWAT team showed up here and they showed up with guns. The state police showed up here and said we're taking over, leave. It's a wonder somebody didn't have a heart attack."
Maine State Police spokesman Steve McCausland said troopers were on the scene for security and had no contact with inmates or staffers. They also escorted buses with about 60 inmates to the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston.
By 9 a.m. about a dozen employees at the prison had gathered in the parking area, trying to find someone to provide them with information. Jim Mackie, a longtime union representative for corrections officers, said in his 30-plus-year career in Maine, he's never seen anything like this.
"I have never in my career, seen this sort of action taken in the state of Maine toward state employees," Mackie said.
It was a dramatic ending to a simmering showdown between the governor, the Legislature, and business and municipal in Washington County, who have been working to try to keep the facility open. Peter Steele, the governor's director of communications, said previous efforts by other governors to shut down DCF failed because of political pressure and that its closure was a management issue for the entire state corrections system. Last week members of the Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed the bill to keep DCF fully operational.
Speaking with reporters, LePage said he took the initiative to close the facility after state lawmakers opposed his efforts to shut it down.
"As I sit here today, I have a jail that costs more to operate than the maximum security prison in the state of Maine," LePage said. "The Legislature did not fund it for the total two-year biennial and at some point it was going to close and I saw today as an ability to save the state a little bit more money and to help the Legislature fund Medicaid expansion which passed in November. So thank you very much."
LePage's early-morning DCF closure left state Rep. Will Tuell, a Machiasport Republican, fielding a flurry of phone calls from angry and worried constituents. Tuell recently introduced a bill to provide $5.5 million to fund the facility through June of 2019 and require a study on the potential effects of any closure.
Tuell says the move to close the prison was "the governor's way of "bullying legislators" into rejecting the bill. Tuell questions whether the administration had the right to move ahead. "Whether they had the right or not, and that's something we're gonna have to find out, but whether they had the right or not, it isn't the way we do business in Maine," Tuell said.
"I don't know what the outcome will be, but I would let people in Washington County know that we're doing whatever we have to do to make sure that this isn't going to go quietly," Tuell said.
Senate Repubicans also released a written statement saying "the people of Washington County deserve better" and criticizing the governor's closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility.
“The Maine Legislature’s commitment to keeping this facility open has been consistent. In addition to fighting for funding in the budget, legislators in 2016 reached agreement on a government facilities bond that mandated a correctional facility exist in Washington County," the Senate Repubicans' statement said. "This action appears contrary to the agreement that was reached.”
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said the action "flies in the face of the clear intent of the Legislature as expressed in the biennial budget, in statute and in the deliberations of the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice."
Meanwhile, as several businesses in the Machias area ponder how they will replace the prison workers who were transferred to the Charleston Correctional Facility, former DCF employees such as Scott Guerra says the region will respond.
"We try to rally the community and get our voices heard in Augusta and hopefully with the lawmakers of Washington County, they'll help us get the word out and hopefully we can change the governors mind and get these prisoners back here and get these people back to work," Guerra said.
Members of the governor's staff said there are job vacancies in Washington County that may be a match for some of the DCF employees, but supporters of the prison hope that they can return to their jobs in Machiasport with the help of the Maine Legislature.
Jim Mackie of AFSME says his organization and the Maine State Employeess Association are meeting with their attorneys to discuss possible legal action. Senate Republicans says they are also looking at "all available options."