Washington County town officials, business leaders and employees at the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) joined county legislators in Augusta on February 15 to testify against a proposal by the LePage administration to close the Machiasport prison, which employs 50 people and houses up to 150 inmates. The hearing was held by the legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias presented petitions signed by 1,500 people opposed to the closure and noted that many others had submitted comments to the committee. He pointed out that three successive governors "have tried their utmost to close the Machiasport prison. And yet each time we have been on the brink of closure, the legislature has realized the value, the impact, the need for a statewide approach to corrections. Each time senators and representatives from both parties have realized the folly, the shortsightedness, the devastation that closing one of Maine's prisons would bring to our criminal justice system, our state and specifically to the people of Washington County."
Senator Joyce Maker of Calais stated that the proposal to eliminate funding of the Downeast Correctional Facility "could be devastating to Washington County and its local businesses, as well as the many individuals who earn a living by working at the facility." She noted, "We have been facing a lot of losses during the past few years with the loss of nursing homes, the loss of the DHHS office in the Calais area, losing services to our constituents and forcing them to travel to places further from their families and their homes. We have faced losing the Downeast Correctional Facility many times over the years."
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick informed the committee that, under the plan to defund the prison, inmates would be given ankle-bracelets and put out on the street with no transition services or supervision.
In her comments, Maker stated that she had serious concerns about allowing the release of prisoners with ankle bracelets. "These are individuals who have been convicted of a crime. We must first give serious thought about the type of crime that was committed, as well as the cost of funding additional probation and parole officers to watch over them." Joyce Howland of Bucks Harbor expressed similar concerns, stating that releasing prisoners into the community where there are "an elementary school, several churches and close-knit families will threaten the safety of this area."
Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald spoke about the impact that the work crews from DCF have "on the economic health of this area," as they assist with many projects. The wood shop helped restore the Washington County Courthouse, and inmates work in numerous local industries, from wreath-making to lobstering.
David Bell, general manager of Cherryfield Foods Inc., pointed out, "We have found the DCF work release program a reliable alternative to meet our peak labor needs at Maine Wild Blueberry Company. If we do not have a reliable local alternative to meet our labor needs in state, we will need to source out-of-state labor, which will result in the majority of seasonal wages paid moving out of state."
Machias businessman David Whitney told lawmakers that his family businesses hire between 30-40 prisoners on work release every year, paying competitive wages and allowing the state to recoup some of its boarding costs. "They want to be at work," Whitney said.
In their letter, Machias Town Man A young man from the Passamaquoddy Tribe who is one of only five Native American youth in the country chosen as a Center for Native American Youth 2017 Champion for Change has returned home to Pleasant Point after his recent four-day visit to Washington, D.C., and calls the experience "absolutely amazing."
"Everything flew by so quickly, my head is still spinning, but I made a lot of new relationships and came home with a lot of business cards," says 15-year-old Carroll "CJ" Francis Jr.
The Shead High School freshman was chosen for the Champion for Change honor due to his positive attitude in fostering relationships among members of different generations, being an active mentor himself, and engaging his peers by introducing them to topics such as how to prepare healthy traditional foods and protecting natural resources. The Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute created the Champions for Change program as a youth leadership initiative that highlights positive stories from Indian Country and develops young Native leaders through experience-based learning.
The other 2017 Native American Youth Champions for Change who joined Francis in the nation's Capitol are Faith Holman, a 16-year-old Navaho from New Mexico; Mariah Gladston, a 22-year-old member of the Blackfoot Tribe from Montana; Nancy Deere-Turney, 22, who is a member of the Muscogee Tribe in Oklahoma; and Samuel Schimmell, 16, who is an Alaskan native and member of the Kenaitze/St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik Tribe. Since he was the youngest of the five Champions for Change chosen this year, "They called me Baby Champ," chuckles Francis.
Francis was recognized as a Champion for Change for his work to create intergenerational bonds in his tribal community. Having experienced severe bullying in middle school, he sought to strengthen relationships and unite fellow tribal members through educational community events that address natural resource protection, climate change, nutrition and physical wellness and more. His largest undertaking was the creation of Honor Our Elders, a community event celebrating elders as keepers of language, cultural knowledge and traditions. “Elders are the foundation of who we are, and the keepers of our knowledge and wisdom,” says Francis. “It is important for our Native youth to step up and pay attention to them.”
Francis formally introduced his work on Tuesday, February 14, through a public panel discussion at the Aspen Institute. The panel highlighted diverse needs and issues in Indian Country and the champions’ innovative solutions to address them. Following the panel, Senator Dorgan presented the champions to tribal leaders from across the country at the National Congress of American Indians’ Executive Council Winter Session. A reception was held in conjunction with NCAI’s meeting to honor the champions and celebrate CNAY’s sixth year as a national advocacy organization for Native American youth. On Wednesday, February 15, the champions spent their day on Capitol Hill engaging with members of Congress and exploring ways in which their representatives could support their efforts. Champions discussed existing and proposed policies that directly impact their tribal communities, and urged their representatives to prioritize Native youth and tribal nations in their agendas.
“Champ Week gave me the incredible opportunity to represent my tribe and the State of Maine while advocating for important issues in Indian Country,” says Francis. “I was able to voice my personal story of bullying, share my community leadership efforts, and express the importance of our tribal elders. I look forward to continuing to make a difference in my tribal community and aspire to lead our people in a successful direction as the future chief of our Passamaquoddy Tribe.”
Francis had a chance to speak with U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine while he was there, and she said of the experience, "I was delighted to meet with CJ and discuss many important issues concerning Native Americans. CJ is a highly motivated student with an impressive record of community engagement and leadership. I am pleased that he is being recognized as a Champion for Change as one of only five Native American youth selected to participate in this prestigious program."
"I really enjoyed my time with Susan Collins," reports Francis. "She really listened to me when I was talking about the health care problems on the reservation, and when I went into her office she showed me a basket made by a Passamaquoddy person, which she said was her proudest possession. That was awesome."
"My schedule was so packed, I only had time to talk to Senator Angus King during his coffee hour and talked to Representative Bruce Poliquin on the phone."
"Out of all of the people I met, I was most impressed with [former] Senator Byron Dorgan, the Native American who founded the Center for Native American Youth," says Francis. "I got to meet our Passamaquoddy Tribe's lawyer, Michael Corey Francis Hinton, and he is awesome."
"All of the receptions were awesome," adds Francis, who was accompanied by his former Shead teacher Benjamin Brigham. "The first night we were each introduced on stage and then walked off, but at the second one, we each got to explain our story and get a medal. It's blue and white with 'congratulations' on one side and 'Champion for Change' on the other."
This national recognition provides Francis and the other four champions with an initial platform to amplify their leadership stories and benefit from a variety of resources that will enhance their advocacy skills.
"I am very happy that I had this experience," sums up Francis. "I came home with a lot of inspiration."