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June 9, 2017





Downeast prison fate depends on budget decisions
by Lora Whelan


     The fate of the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) is still in limbo. Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias explains that there are three versions of the state budget and each with its own variation of funding the Washington County-based prison.
     Senator Joyce Maker of Calais sketches out the budget process and its implications for how long it may be before the prison may be closed. "At the present time, the budget committee is working on an allotment for the prison. The Republican House members have suggested the governor's proposal of nine months, the Senate Republicans have suggested one year with reviewing for future year, and the Senate Democrats have suggested two years. We don't know where it will end up, but at least it is not June 10 as previously recommended."
      Tuell says, "It will probably fall between one to two years. I certainly favor the two years. I firmly believe we should fund it for the long haul." He adds that he hopes that the legislature "can do some other things to protect the employees and the prison for the long haul."
     After the Senate on May 24 voted 30‑3 to preserve funding for the prison for the next two years through a joint order introduced by Senator Maker, the House voted unanimously in support of the order the next day.
     Area lawmakers of both parties have condemned the unexpected announcement made by Governor LePage on May 19 of the facility's closure on June 10. Pink slips were issued, putting in jeopardy 50 employees and the placement of over 100 prisoners. DCF is a minimum‑security 149‑bed prison with from 49‑55 employees that readies inmates for transition back into society with vocational training, work‑release employment and community service.
     "The closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility would have dealt a devastating blow to the economy in Washington County," said Rep. Robert Alley of Beals. "I am proud of the way legislators from both parties and across the state have come together to support the facility."
     Rep. Anne Perry of Calais said on May 25, "With this vote, and the one in the Senate yesterday, it is clear that the intent of the legislature is that Downeast remains open."
     The governor's actions were a surprise given that the legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had voted unanimously on March 20 to support funding for DCF in their budget recommendations to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
     In sending a strong statement with the vote to the Appropriations Committee to fund the prison, the joint order introduced by Senator Maker reads, in part: "Whereas, because of the scarcity of available beds in the state correctional system available to house inmates, it is essential that the Downeast Correctional Facility be funded for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017, in order to ensure the safety of the public; now, therefore be it ordered, the House concurring, the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs shall report out, to the Senate, a bill that provides funding for the operation of the Downeast Correctional Facility for fiscal years 2017‑2018 and 2018‑2019."
     Despite the success of the joint order and the support of the committees, Tuell notes that the governor has continued with actions that erode the prison's functionality. On May 27 the governor issued conditional commutations for 17 prisoners to allow them to re-enter the workforce and opening up some prison bed spaces in the state. The state only has 40 to 60 open beds, and closure of DCF would remove 149 beds.
    Maker observes, "Commutation process usually takes six months with thorough review. This commutation was done in a week. If indeed the reason for releasing the prisoners was to provide a workforce, a thorough review would make both the employer and people visiting the business feel a lot better. It is my opinion this was not the intent of the commutation. It was to provide a destination for the prisoners from Downeast. There are discussions that there are prisoners in prison that should not be there, and whether I agree or not is not the problem. The problem is the process in which we did it. A bill should have been submitted to the committee of oversight and have them discuss and decide who they should be and the process that should have occurred."
     "I don't think people are impressed with that," Tuell says wryly of the governor's commutations. "While he can do it legally, using this to reduce bed pressures, I don't believe it's the way to go." He adds, "He's also moving prisoners around. At some point, he's going to run out of beds. He'll come up against it and will start to look at county jails." Tuell pauses. "Commutation doesn't send the right message," he states. "It sends the message that we're soft on crime."     



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