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LePage’s abrupt closing of Washington County prison

At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 9, 63 inmates were transferred and almost 40 prison staff members were handed layoff notices due to Gov. LePage’s abrupt closing of the Washington County prison. Employees of the facility were put on paid administrative leave until March 3. On March 3, the employees are expected to be laid off.

The sudden closing of the Downeast Correctional Facility sparked political controversy, in regard to whether or not the prison should be kept open.

In response, a bill to fund the prison for another year was approved in the House in a 87-59 vote on Thursday, Feb. 15. While it was approved, there are not enough votes for the two-thirds majority needed to override a possible veto by LePage. The Senate’s vote on the bill, which quickly followed the House’s vote, was 31-3.

The bill, L.D. 1704, would provide $5.5 million in funding to the facility over the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, as well as study the impacts of closing the facility.

The Washington County commissioners have brought pending litigation in Maine’s Superior Court, which would block the LePage administration from closing the facility.

If the Washington County commissioners and Attorney General Janet Mills argue that LePage misused his authority in closing a facility that was funded by the Legislature, the funding bill could play a role in that legal case.

Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner has many concerns with the whole situation, which he shared with the Bangor Daily News (BDN). One concern of Gardner’s was the governor’s use of what Gardner referred to as “simple math.”

“I have struggled to understand the governor’s rationale around this,” he said in a BDN article. “I don’t think anybody in the state of Maine has truly seen the numbers around this facility. The governor keeps speaking about this $5.4 million that it costs to run and there’s only 60 prisoners. He does simple math and says, ‘Look how expensive it is.’”

Gardner continued, saying, “Well, that really leaves out a lot of details.” The commissioner went on to say, “Number one, $5.4 million is the total cost if the facility was at full staff, full capacity, which the governor himself has made sure hasn’t gone on through the department and the commissioner. They have systematically reduced the number of prisoners in the facility [over the past two years]. That is their choice, but by doing that, they have lowered the efficiency.”

According to Gardner, about half of the prisoners work in the community and part of their incomes goes toward the Department of Corrections’ budget, but the governor’s calculation of the cost does not account for that income.

Gardner believes the issue within the case affects every county in Maine, not just Washington County.

“This is not a Washington County issue,” he told the BDN. “This is an issue about corrections in general. It’s an issue about the process in Augusta and not allowing them to unilaterally close this facility. For those in the other parts of the state who think this may not be affected by this, if any governor, whether it be this one or any other is allowed to unilaterally circumvent the Legislature, the old adage, you know, applies — soon it will be your ox they gore.”

This is not the first time that idea of closing this prison has been brought up. The prison’s first appearance on the chopping block was in 1993. Ever since then, there have been multiple efforts to close the facility, which have repeatedly been stopped by Washington County legislators and community leaders.

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