Governor's veto may doom future of Maine correctional facility
Washington County lawmakers are planning a last-ditch attempt this week to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility
By Kevin Miller
Portland Press Herald, Maine
AUGUSTA, Maine — Washington County lawmakers are planning a last-ditch attempt this week to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility while acknowledging the need to look beyond their monthslong political and legal fight with Gov. Paul LePage over the prison’s future.
In early June, the LePage administration quietly transferred the handful of remaining Downeast Correctional inmates and laid off the last few workers after operating the Machiasport facility at minimal levels. Supporters’ last hope in reopening the aging prison will be to summon the two-thirds votes needed to override LePage’s veto of a bill to fund Downeast Correctional for another year – something they have been unable to achieve to date in the Maine House.
“I’m not overly confident,” said Rep. Will Tuell, R-Machias, the bill’s sponsor. “I would like to think (the votes) would be there because we are within a few votes of getting there, but I’m also realistic and am planning for the future.”
Targeted for closure for years by LePage and two of his predecessors, Downeast Correctional is a former U.S. Air Force facility that was transferred to the state in the mid-1980s. The 150-bed prison was minimum security, housing inmates whose offenses were not violent, and that allowed inmates to gain job skills (and bank some money for post-prison life) by working for local companies.
LePage tried several times to close Downeast Correctional – arguing it is inefficient and unnecessary – but lawmakers continued to fund it. Finally, his administration sent state police and other law enforcement officers to the – as well as to some businesses where inmates were working – to transfer the 63 inmates then housed there to other facilities.
While a judge subsequently ordered LePage to continue operating the prison until the fiscal year ended on June 30, she said it was w to set inmate and staffing levels.
There were seven prisoners and seven staffers at Downeast Correctional on June 4, which is the date the inmates were transferred, according to LePage’s office. The last working day for staff was June 9, which allowed the administration to include any final paychecks and moving expenses within the fiscal year.
“The Downeast Correctional Facility is an antiquated and unnecessary facility,” LePage wrote in his July 2 veto letter of L.D. 1704, Tuell’s bill to fund the prison for another year. “The Department of Corrections is able to house and rehabilitate minimum-security prisoners at comparable facilities that cost less to operate. My administration is the third in a row that sought to end this wasteful use of taxpayer dollars – and the first to succeed.”
CRUNCHING NUMBERS DIFFERENTLY
How expensive Downeast Correctional was to operate – and how it compares to other facilities – depends on the years used to calculate those costs. Both sides in the prison debate, including LePage, have cherry-picked numbers to argue their point.
During a radio appearance Tuesday on WVOM-FM, LePage repeated his claim that Downeast Correctional “is the most expensive prison in the system,” saying it cost more than $47,000 per prisoner annually compared to $44,000 a year at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
“We have a supermax prison that costs less to house hardened murderers than it does to put people in Downeast,” LePage said.
But the Maine Department of Corrections’ own figures show that per-prisoner costs at Downeast Correctional have not exceeded $47,000 a year since 2010, the year LePage was elected.
In the years since, the Machiasport prison’s per-inmate costs have ranged from a low of roughly $39,000 in 2014 to $45,500 in 2012. Last year, it cost the state $41,582 to house each inmate at Downeast Correctional, compared to $46,162 at the Maine State Prison and $54,201 at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, a former ally of LePage who has fallen out with the governor over the prison issue, said Downeast Correctional is the second-cheapest facility in the state if you look at the most recent five-year average. And that’s because the prison, and the state to LePage’s credit, worked to lower costs in response to concerns, Gardner said.
“Governor LePage is vetoing a bill to close the second-most efficient prison in the system because, by his own words, it is too expensive,” Gardner said Thursday. “That just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
LABOR POOL FOR LOCAL BUSINESSES
In addition to the jobs lost at the prison, Gardner and other supporters point out that Washington County businesses – from blueberry growers to lobster pounds and wreath-makers – lost access to a pool of work-release inmates willing to take difficult-to-fill jobs. Gardner said he plans to continue fighting to reopen the prison, starting with persuading more lawmakers to overturn LePage’s veto this week.
While Gardner says he hopes the next governor will continue many of LePage successes – “and there have been many,” the Republican adds – he also hopes the next chief executive will look at the prison issue with “a fresh eye.”
“We just don’t understand why this got so personal” for LePage, Gardner said. “He attacked our senator and our representatives and called them ‘crybabies.’ This is the chief executive. We are one of the poorest counties in the state and we are trying.”
Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, has been on the receiving end of those barbs from LePage but has also fired back on the governor for his stance on the prison. Like Tuell, her Washington County counterpart in the House, she’s not banking on a veto override because enough House Republicans have historically sided with LePage on the issue.
“There is always hope that we will (override) but the reality is we probably won’t,” Maker said. “My hope is with a new governor, they will hear about what is happening here.”
LEPAGE PREDICTS: ‘DOWNEAST IS DEAD’
Maker had introduced an emergency bill, L.D. 1841, earlier this year to authorize construction of a new pre-release facility in Washington County. LePage has previously supported construction of a new facility in the county, and an earlier bond measure approved by lawmakers to fund a massive expansion at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham included $10 million for a facility Down East.
But Maker spiked the bill after the LePage administration talked about only opening a 15- to 20-bed facility with possible satellite facilities located on private property near businesses.
The last roll call vote on Tuell’s bill to fund the prison for another year was 95-53, just shy of the two-thirds that would be needed to overturn the governor’s veto. And LePage has proved adept at persuading some House Republicans to switch their votes to uphold his vetoes.
“I’m predicting that Downeast is dead,” LePage said on WVOM. “I do believe the Legislature will sustain that veto. Because as incompetent as some of them are, they realize it is a complete waste of money.”
©2018 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)