Prison closure looms despite legislative support

Photo: The Downeast Correctional Facility is still not safe from closure according to Washington County legislative delegates Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Calais) and Rep. Will Tuell (E. Machias). The 128th legislature is working its way through Governor LePage’s 2018-19 biennial budget proposal, in which the governor proposed defunding the prison and shutting its doors. The prison is located in Machiasport.                   Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon

by Sarah Craighead Dedmon

Responding to rumors that the governor’s office intends to close the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) in spite of widespread legislative support for keeping it open, Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Calais) requested legal advice from the Maine Attorney General’s office last month. Located in Bucks Harbor, Machiasport, the prison can house 150 prisoners and contributes 52 jobs to the local economy.

“I am writing to request an advisory opinion on whether the Chief Executive has the authority to close a correctional facility without the approval of the Legislative Branch,” wrote Maker in a letter addressed to Attorney General Janet Mills and dated April 13.

“I heard that it didn’t matter whether the prison was kept in the budget or not, it was closing on June 5th,” said Maker. “Someone was just going to go down and pick the prisoners up and bring them somewhere else.”

“If he were to actually do that, it would be a very interesting situation,” said Rep. Will Tuell (R-E. Machias) who has worked with Maker and other delegates to protect the local facility from closure. “I wouldn’t want to speculate on what would actually happen.” 

Maker received a written response from Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda M. Pistner citing multiple reasons why the governor cannot legally close the prison without the support of the legislature.

Pistner said that the prison is established in statute and that the “governor cannot unilaterally amend statutes without violating the separation of powers provisions...in the Maine constitution,” wrote Pistner. “Similarly, the current budget establishes the Downeast Correctional Facility as a discrete program by making appropriations specific to this facility. A program so established cannot be eliminated by the executive branch.”

Pistner also said that in the absence of express statutory authority, the governor cannot put appropriations to a different purpose than specified in the budget or other law.

Vital WaCo contributions 

A February hearing held by the appropriations committee drew dozens of supportive emails, and Tuell delivered a petition containing the signature of almost 2,500 Washington County prison supporters. 

The hearing also drew attendees from Washington County towns and businesses. In addition to the jobs it provides, the prison inmates play a vital role in the local work economy. As part of DCF’s work-release program, eligible inmates are hired and paid by local businesses. They also donate labor to municipalities and non-profits. 

According to testimony submitted by the Sunrise County Economic Council, twenty percent of DCF inmate’s work release gross earnings, approximately $200,000 to $250,000, go to the state to offset the cost of room and board. Work-release participants also pay state and federal taxes on their income. 

David Whitney of Whitney Wreath testified at the hearing in Augusta. “Our wreath business goes from 16 to 17 year-round employees to a total of 452 W-2s, it’s very, very difficult to ramp up that quickly for that short a period of time,” said Whitney. “31 of those employees are from the prison, those workers make a huge difference for Whitney Wreath.”

In March, the criminal justice committee voted unanimously to retain funding for the prison. 

Endless uncertainty

Someone affiliated with the prison and speaking on condition of anonymity said that they are concerned that Washington County is fatigued by the repeated closure attempts, and therefore might stop fighting to save the prison. “I’m afraid they will think we’re just crying wolf, but this is real.”

Maker said she feels badly for what the prison employees and their families have been put through over the years of threatened closures.  “As I said in my caucus meeting, it’s cruel and abusive punishment to those employees down there. It’s living with the unknown, and it’s not right and it’s not fair.”

“The [governor’s office] believes the prison costs a lot of money, but I believe that these employees have saved money for the state of Maine,” said Maker.

After a day of legislative work in Augusta last week, Maker was approached by a representative from Portland who sits on the criminal justice committee. “She said, ‘I want to talk to you. I want you to know if there’s anything you need for the Downeast prison, please come to me, I’ll do whatever you ask.’”

“They really care,” said Maker, “I was really touched by her. Tears came to her eyes. I think we have a lot of support, no question.”

According to Tuell, the prison remains unfunded in the biennial budget proposal which will not be finalized until the end of this legislative session in June. Tuell said that prison supporters should direct calls and emails of support to the appropriations committee. 

“If the prison isn’t there in the budget, it’s going to be very hard for me to vote for it,” said Tuell. 

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