Lawyer says Downeast prison must be reopened quickly

Attorney David Webbert said he'll return to court if the administration doesn't comply with a recent court order.

AUGUSTA (NEWS CENTER Maine) — The lawyer for union workers at the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) said Friday the prison needs to be reopened as soon as possible to comply with a judge’s order. Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy issued a temporary injunction Thursday, ordering the LePage administration to reopen the prison.

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Attorney David Webbert, representing the two labor unions for prison workers, said the judge was clear that the abrupt closure of the DCF last month violated state statute because the prison had been authorized by the state legislature, and could not be closed by the governor on his own.

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"So the layoffs and removal of inmates from the prison was all done as part of an illegal closure, so it needs to be undone," Webbert said.

Gov. Paul LePage, who said Friday he had read the ruling, also indicated he will be meeting with the lawyer and commissioner Monday to decide how to respond to the judge.

"So [Justice Murphy] says she is going to leave it up to the commissioner, so we have to see what we’re going to do," LePage said. "Reopen it? What’s the options here? And one of the options is to go to the Supreme Court and ask them what to do?"

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The judge ordered the Commissioner of Corrections to reopen the prison but also deferred to him on specific decisions on how to reopen it. Webbert said the judge’s intent is still clear.

"But if they don’t bring the prisoners back and don’t bring the employees back they are not reopening the prison," Webbert said. "That’s a clear violation of the order that said it was illegal, what [the governor] did when you closed it."

He told NEWS CENTER Maine that if the state does not begin the process of reopening by early next week, he will go back to the judge to try to force the administration to comply.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the funding for the prison runs out at the end of June. The legislature is debating a bill to continue funding for at least another year, but the fate of the bill is uncertain. Even lawyer Webbert conceded it was possible the prison could reopen, only to close again at the end of June. LePage said that would be a bad idea.

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"Do we reopen it and then shut it back down?" LePage said. "I would call that a waste of money at this point."

Webbert said the LePage administration should be required to follow the law and the court order.