AUGUSTA (NEWS CENTER Maine) — Friday’s sudden move by the LePage administration to close the Downeast Correctional Facility has a lot of lawmakers angry in Augusta. The Downeast Correctional Facility has been a hot issue for the past two years, but debate over the topic dates back to the Baldacci administration.
In 2017, Gov. Paul LePage planned to close the facility but there was strong support in the legislature to keep it open. As a result, funding was added to the budget to keep the prison open until the end of June of this year to allow more time to study and discuss the issue.
A bill to continue funding the prison beyond June is currently moving through the legislature, and a committee passed it by a wide margin earlier this week.
Legislators from Washington County, who say the prison is vital to the county’s economy, are angry at what Gov. LePage did and how it was done.
"But to do this in the darkness of night, when they had money until June 30, and upset so many people in Washington County, is devastating, just devastating," said Sen. Joyce Maker, a Republican.
Democrat Rep. Anne Perry was also angry.
"I think what really upsets me is he did that in such a clandestine way," said Rep. Perry, who also argued the closing would cost the county’s economy as much as $8 million per year. She called that "a real, devastating loss."
LePage spoke briefly to reporters Friday, defending the long-delayed decision to shut the prison down.
Here's the transcript of one of his responses:
Gov: This is not a new issue. Talk to Peter.
Don: Why today Governor?
Gov: Why not? Why not?
Don: Was it because of the legislature’s vote earlier this week?
Gov: Listen. I am the chief executive of the state of Maine. As I sit here today I have a jail that costs more to operate than a maximum security prison in the state of Maine. The legislature did not fund [Downeast Correctional] for the two-year biennial [budget] and, at some point, it was gonna close. 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.
Reporter: Some are calling this a cowardly act.
Governor: “Cowardly act?” (Gov shrugs his shoulders and walks out the doors)
The governor’s press secretary told NEWS CENTER Maine the Department of Corrections intends to open a new pre-release facility in Washington County in the next 3-6 months. Julie Rabinowitz said that facility will house an unspecified number of prisoners, who will be able to work at jobs in the community, as dozens of DCF inmates had been doing.
Rabinowitz said the facility would also employ some staff, but said details on numbers of staff and prisoners and the location of the new facility are still being worked out. She said it would not be located at DCF.
A pre-release center for Washington County was part of a deal worked out in 2016 between the Department of Corrections and the Legislature, as part of a state bond issue to pay for that facility and a major overhaul of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Washington County legislators said they had heard no details since then about plans for the new facility.
The governor’s office said there were 63 inmates at the Downeast Correctional Facility who were moved to other state facilities Friday. It was expected most would go to other minimum security prisons in Warren and Charleston. There were 39 staff members placed on administrative leave Friday morning, and they will reportedly get formally laid off from their jobs on March 3.
In the legislature, Democrats and Senate Republican leaders said they were investigating to determine if the governor has the legal authority to close the prison on his own.