Downeast Correctional Facility inmates relocated 'under the cover of darkness'

A car sits parked outside a security gate at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, Feb. 17, 2017. (Bill Trotter | BDN)

MACHIASPORT (BDN) -- BBuses and security teams arrived at Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport early Friday morning to relocate inmates to another prison.

Downeast staff have been placed on paid administrative leave and received layoff notices effective March 1, according to union representatives.

Buses and Maine State Police teams arrived at the gates of the facility at 4:30 a.m. Friday, according to Jim Mackie, a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 93, the union that represents corrections workers.

“Nobody knew,” Mackie said. “They did this under the cover of darkness. We’re all just kind of in reaction mode this morning.”

The prison houses about 100 inmates and operations cost about $5 million per year. Gov. Paul LePage has been trying to close the facility, but lawmakers have pushed back. A bill to keep it open is pending in the Legislature.

A spokeswoman for LePage confirmed Friday morning’s events.

“This is not a new issue,” Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said in an email. “Other governors have tried to close this outdated facility, which is expensive and inefficient to run. For the past couple of years, Gov. LePage has been quite clear in his intent to close Downeast Correctional Facility.”

Mackie said the inmates were being moved to Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston. He said his union is exploring whether LePage’s move is in accordance with union contract rules, though he said there is language in the contract regarding the closure of facilities.

Washington County’s legislative delegation could not be immediately reached.

“I just find this absolutely frigging incredible that the governor of the state of Maine wouldn’t even give the political representatives from the county notice that he was doing this,” Mackie said.

In 2017, LePage attempted to close the facility as part of his two-year state budget proposal and in May of 2017 announced plans to close the prison the following month. Layoff notices were given to 46 employees, and LePage said he planned to issue conditional commutations to some prisoners to move them out of the jail, including a work re-entry program.

Days later, LePage reversed course and said he wanted to fund the prison for at least another nine months.

Lawmakers, particularly those from Washington County, have strongly opposed closing the facility, which they said would hurt Washington County’s economy and devastate families who rely on the jobs.

LD 1704, which is pending, would provide $5.5 million to keep the prison open through June 2019. The bill also calls on the Department of Corrections to analyze the effects of the closure. Earlier this week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had a split vote on the bill but the details of the vote were not clear Friday morning.

Downeast Correctional Facility was opened in 1955 by the U.S. Air Force and acquired by the Department of Corrections in 1985. The DOC testified this year to the Legislature that there would be enough beds within the Maine prison system to accommodate the facility’s prisoners.

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