AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly a year after former Gov. Paul LePage ordered the prison in Washington County closed, the Mills administration and a state legislator are moving to reopen a prison in downeast Maine.
At the time it was ordered to shut down, the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport had about fifty staff and nearly 100 inmates, many of whom worked in area businesses. Washington County residents said the loss of those jobs and workers posed a serious threat to their local economy. But the shutdown happened anyway.
With a new legislature and Governor, Rep. Will Tuell (R-East Machias) is sponsoring a bill to restore funding and reopen Downeast Correctional for two years.
“I think there’s a definite need,” said Tuell. "I think there was a lot of heartburn when the facility left, with the workers who worked there who had so many years in state government, and that all went way with the stroke of a pen.”
Acting Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty, who was nominated by Gov. Janet Mills and is awaiting a confirmation hearing, says the administration also wants to open some kind of correctional facility in Washington County —though details have yet to be worked out.
“We’re committed to opening something, a re-entry sort of facility,” said Liberty, “We think it’s important to re-employ some of the folks who were laid off from Downeast Correctional Facility. We also believe its important to support employers in the community with offender employment that was happening there.”
Exactly what kind of facility it would be, how many prisoners it would house, and even where it would be located are not yet clear. Liberty says the former facility is old and that it was stripped of much of its useful infrastructure, including boilers and air conditioning, after it closed in June. He says there’s a question whether to renovate what remains of Downeast, build something new at that location, or build or renovate elsewhere.
Rep. Tuell was clear that his preference is for a facility to be at the Downeast site that is nearly as large as the DCF used to be.
“I don’t see how it would be cost effective to do 20, 25 beds,” Tuell told NEWS CENTER Maine. "I almost think it’s a waste of time to do something that small with such limited impact.”
There is funding that is supposed to be available for the purpose. In 2016, the Legislature approved borrowing about $150 million to rebuild much of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. But a portion of that money was to be set aside for a new pre-release facility of some kind in Washington County.
At the time it closed the DCF, the LePage administration said it was moving ahead with that plan, but it never materialized. The legislature discussed the pre-release proposal during last year’s extended debate over the DCF, but did not develop any detailed plan.
Acting Commissioner Liberty says he will work with the Legislature and Washington County residents to develop the new plan.