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February 28, 2014

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Closure of Bucks Harbor prison proposed again in state report
 
by Lora Whelan

 

     A feasibility study issued by the Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) proposes to close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport as one of a number of consolidation measures. The proposal is the fourth time that state officials have looked at closing the state prison.
     According to the report, the goal of the consolidation plan would be to create enough savings to justify a $173 million expansion or major renovation of the Maine Correctional Center (MCC) in Windham. The funding would be through a bond issue, with the annual bond payment projected to cost $12.74 million per year for 20 years.
     Downeast Correctional Facility was opened in 1985 on the site of a former military radar installation built in 1955. With the exception of a metal building installed in 2000 to house the industrial arts program, a 1989 double-wide administrative building and a laundry annex, the prison is housed in the 1954 buildings and, according to the report, has not had any major building additions or renovations. It is a minimum security prison with a capacity for 149 inmates and about 55 employees. MDOC Director of Special Projects Scott Fish explains that prisoners at a minimum security facility "have a few things in common. Generally they are model prisoners and serving the last three years of their sentence." If Downeast Correctional were to close prisoners would be placed at MCC. Fish says that the Windham facility would have a minimum security and transitional services component.
     In 2012 Downeast Correctional changed from medium/minimum security to minimum and saw a decrease in personnel from 68 to 55. The facility prepares inmates for their release, primarily through programs that teach basic life skills as well as workplace skills, such as welding, that can translate into employment and careers. Many of the vocational programs also include a community service component with many prisoners working on projects for the county, municipalities, civic groups and nonprofits. A community service crew might put in around 25,000 hours in one year on projects that range from removing the docks from the Greenland Point Center, repairing an air boat for the Maine Warden Service, building fire trucks, fixing fleet vehicles that belong to the state or contributing carpentry skills for a building project. The facility also makes prison garments for the entire state prison system.
     Despite Downeast Correctional's role in transitioning prisoners back to civic life, the MDOC report states that the facility should be closed because of high per diem operating costs of $109.80 per inmate, as opposed to the state average of $104.25, and its "very limited physical plant" requiring "significant maintenance" that does not meet correctional standards. The 300‑plus page report does not break down the added expense of a per diem inmate cost of providing vocational training at a facility such as Downeast Correctional. Nor does it attempt to quantify the dollar value of inmate community service work.
     Washington County Commissioner Chair Chris Gardner notes that Downeast Correctional is known for its quality employees and low turnover rate, which he says is very difficult to achieve at prisons in southern and mid‑coast Maine.
     Other than to mention that the MCC has some hazardous materials with cost removal estimates included in a contingency line item, the report does not give dollar amount estimates for the demolition or shuttering of decommissioned prisons. Gardner states that the report is "heavy on fact but light on details" and doesn't take into account "the ripple effects" the closure would have on Washington County's struggling rural economy.
If the proposed bond package is not approved, the report suggests that monies be allocated for capital upgrades, including a little over $15 million for Downeast Correctional. All told, the total capital expenditures recommended for different correctional facilities would be $71.5 million, as opposed to the $173 million for the Windham expansion.
      Gardner explains that the report is being put forward by MDOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte to the legislature's Criminal Justice Committee. Ponte, he notes, has a background in the privatized corrections field. He says that the Maine County Commissioners Association has been active "and is going to engage in a pretty intense discussion with the MDOC." He adds that the commissioners "are going to fight this." He expects that, like the discussions held with Governor LePage in 2012 when the prison was in jeopardy, the commissioners will be "able to convince him that it would not be a net positive. ... [The prison] is performing a valuable service for the state here."
      The report includes the following recommendations: closing Downeast Correctional and Southern Maine Women's Reentry Center; downsizing of Charleston Correctional; and housing male inmates up to 25 years of age at Mountain View Youthful Development Center. Maine State Prison and MCC would be stand‑alone facilities with no expectation that inmates would transition between the two on a regular basis. The MSP mental health unit would be moved to the new MCC, and state inmates would no longer be boarded at county jail facilities, with the exception of the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center. The report also suggests that MCC could provide bed capacity for county jail inmates with specialized needs. Fish notes, "Transport/maintenance costs are, and will continue to be, paid by the counties" for such services.

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