The fight to keep the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) prison operating will be a long road, says Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias. He, Senator Joyce Maker of Calais, Rep. Robert Alley of Beals, Rep. Anne Perry of Calais and other legislators have sponsored a bill, LD 1704, that would fund the Machiasport prison through 2019 and would require a detailed report including the related impact of closure on other correctional facilities and an economic and community impact analysis. If the bill is enacted, the facility would remain open until the report is completed and the legislature has the opportunity to decide whether it should remain open.
DCF is a minimum‑security, 149‑bed state prison with from 49 to 55 employees that readies inmates for transition back into society with vocational training, work‑release employment and community service.
A public hearing on the bill was held on January 29, and a week later Tuell reports the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 11‑1‑1 to support the bill. Tuell says, "I think we have a battle ahead of us. We have a lot of hoops to jump through, but we are still in this and will most likely still be in it right up till the legislature closes up shop in late April."
The public hearing lasted almost two hours and was well attended by prison staff, business owners who utilize the work‑release program, community members who have benefited from the community service projects undertaken by the minimum‑security inmates and more. In addition about 3,000 signatures in favor of keeping the prison open were submitted.
At the hearing, no one testified against the bill, but many spoke in support. Rep. Alley, noting the recent history of the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) and Governor LePage's attempts to close the facility, said, "This prison has been on a yo‑yo for years now."
Senator Joyce Maker said that when a previous bill was passed by the legislature, LD 1447, it authorized a revenue bond of $149.5 million for improvements to DCF and the facility in Windham -- "improvements that are not currently being made." She added, "We were given the understanding that DCF would remain open for at least five years as a way to handle overflow issues at other facilities. Yet last session we were again faced with the possible closure of this facility even after the members of this committee chose to put funding for DCF back in the budget."
Maker stressed the importance of the report proposed in the new bill. "We need to look at how closure would impact other correctional facilities in the state. Where would the inmates go, and how well would they be integrated within a new system? Would some of the prisoners be released?" The report would also calculate the economic impact on the local economies. "Whether the facility remains open or is closed, we need a plan for the future so we're not coming back year after year and having this same discussion."
Rep. Tuell stated, "At this time, the DOC is hard pressed to find bed space for inmates, and closing DCF, especially closing it with no plan for housing the inmates, no plan for compensating displaced employees, or no plan for disposing of an abandoned property, is simply not something the legislature should rush into five short months before the facility is slated to close."
Speaking as a private citizen and not as an employee of the facility or representing the Department of Corrections, Maggie Marshall of Machias pointed to information about DCF readily available on the DOC website. As of January 22, there were 141 vacant beds for male prisoners available statewide. If the Machiasport prison were to close immediately, 64 prisoners "would need to be transferred to minimum‑security beds." With further calculations about medium‑ and maximum‑security beds, she explained that there would not be enough beds for all DCF prisoners. DCF, she noted, has the ability to switch from minimum to medium security, which could be another way to use the prison: to house other types of prisoners to accommodate bed pressures around the state.
Rep. Alley noted his surprise when he heard an employee of DCF testify that they had all received a memo from the Department of Corrections concerning the bill. The memo said that they were to take time off when they were testifying, and they were not to say they were speaking on behalf of the department. They were further admonished to be careful about what they said because "the governor will be watching closely."
Remarking on the news of the DOC memo, Rep. Alley said, "To tell employees that they are to testify as private citizens is fine, but the implied threat of 'the governor will be watching' is not OK." He added, "People need to be free to say what they want on their own time. This is something I didn't think would happen in Maine."
"Information is important to making a good decision, and who better than the employees who work there every day to provide that information?" asked Rep. Perry. "This kind of warning will stifle our ability to get accurate information."
Impacts of closure
Charles Rudelitch, executive director of Sunrise County Economic Council, presented testimony at the public hearing about the economic impact of closure. "We project that the layoffs associated with closing DCF would cost Washington County 77 jobs," he said, adding that "55 of those jobs are direct layoffs of DCF staff and related medical personnel." Using an economic model, his organization forecast an additional 22 lost jobs in the county because of reduced spending by DCF employee households. All together the county's economy would see an annual loss of $8.4 million.
Pointing to the importance of the minimum-security inmates to the local economy, Cherryfield Foods General Manager David Bell gave a rundown of how the company uses the work‑release program, which allows inmates to learn skills as they begin their transition back to society. "We employ 50 local people year‑round and have to more than double the workforce for fresh processing in the summer, as we run 24 hours a day, and when we have large orders."
Bell explained, "We are in competition with the lobster fishing, the summer tourism industry and lobster processing to name a few. The work-release program helps to bridge the seasonal and peak labor needs." Over the last few years the total payroll to work‑release employees has been "about $1.7 million with about $340,000 going to the general fund." He added that if necessary the wages are garnished for restitution, child care, debt repayment and more. "Any remaining funds are a financial start for the inmates when they are released."
Of the many work‑release employees, 12 have gone on to be employed by Cherryfield Foods after their sentence was completed. "Currently we have one who is a supervisor and another that is a skilled high-reach fork-truck driver," Bell said. "Four of our current work‑release employees are interested in long‑term employment after their release."
Whitney Wreath also utilizes the work‑release program. CEO David Whitney stated that in the last wreath‑making season they had used 15. "They are a very valuable workforce to the enterprise." From time to time the company has employed inmates who have been released after the completion of their sentence. Some have been laborers, some in quality control and some in office management.
Daniel Ramsdell, commenting as an individual and not as a corrections officer at the prison, told of an inmate incarcerated on drug charges who utilized the work‑release program. "He said it was the first time he'd ever had a job. He felt like he had some skills." Ramsdell pointed to the value of gaining the confidence to do a job well and finding an employment path, "You can see it on their faces when they can send money home for their kids to have Christmas."
Rep. Tuell outlines next steps for the bill. "The next stop will be the House and Senate floors, and then on to appropriations. Odds are, it won't be hashed out till late in session, most likely mid to late April, if we're lucky."
(Editor’s note: After The Quoddy Tides went to press, on Friday, February 9, Governor LePage, with no advance notice, suddenly closed the Downeast Correctional Facility, with buses and Maine State Police teams arriving at 4:30 a.m. to transport inmates to another prison and with staff receiving lay-off notices.)