- Associated Press
Friday, May 19, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Steps taken by the Republican governor of Maine to shut down a minimum-security state prison without legislative approval have drawn concern from Democrats and two GOP lawmakers who have long fought to keep open the Washington County facility.

The Maine Department of Corrections said Friday that the planned closure of Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport would not threaten public safety. Gov. Paul LePage estimates closing the facility, which serves low-security inmates nearing the end of their incarceration, will save roughly $5 million each year in his two-year, $6.8 billion budget proposal.

State Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said the state has informed employees that their last day at the Washington County facility is June 10. Fitzpatrick called the facility “outdated” and “expensive,” and said the department would move 100 inmates to other correctional facilities by that date without providing specifics.

Sen. Joyce Maker and Rep. Will Tuell, both Republicans, said closing the prison would cost 51 jobs and hurt the surrounding community and local businesses that rely on work release inmates and prison labor. Tuell said the legislators are “not going to lie down,” and both said the governor’s actions sidestep the legislative process.

Maker expressed concern that the state lacks beds to house inmates, and noted the LePage administration had floated the idea of monitoring more inmates with electronic ankle bracelets.

LePage’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday.

In March, the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee’s unanimously recommended keeping the facility open. The appropriations committee has yet to take up that proposal.

“There has to be a vote of the legislature to close the prison,” said Maker, who asked the state Attorney General’s office to weigh in.

In an April letter offering informal advice, Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner told Maker the governor doesn’t have the authority to amend the law that established Downeast Correctional Facility.

Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

“The Governor cannot unilaterally amend statutes without violating the separation of powers provisions in article III of the Maine Constitution,” Pistner wrote. She said the current budget appropriates funds to the facility, and that such programs “cannot be eliminated by the executive branch.”

Democratic Rep. Bob Alley said he “can’t believe that, at a time when we have money in the budget, the administration is still making reckless cuts that directly harm Washington County, which is already suffering economically.”

“What do we tell those workers?” he said. “We had the money to keep your jobs afloat but chose instead to show you the door?”

James Durkin, legislative director for Council 93 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, called the move a “reckless and dangerous plan by the governor.” He shared a copy of a layoff notice handed out Friday and said he’s concerned the step would lead to prison overcrowding that can endanger corrections officers.

“We’ll do everything in our power to stop this plan in its tracks,” Durkin said, adding that he hopes the governor halts the plan to work with lawmakers and unions.

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.