Embattled Prison Embroiled in Further Hurdles

By Ruth Leubecker

 

With battle lines drawn and legal entanglements taking center stage, the Downeast Correctional Facility remains alive to fight another day.

“Odds are it will change 10 more times before the week is out,” said Rep. Will Tuell on Valentine’s Day. “Washington County is behind this facility. We need it.”

“We’ll continue to fight on multiple fronts,” said area resident Andrea Guerra, in Augusta for the most recent hearing. “This is not just about jobs.”

Last Thursday, although it passed, a pending bill to keep the Machiasport prison failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to pass as an emergency bill and to survive a veto. The House voted 87-59 in favor, and the Senate 31-3 in favor, a decided victory, but not sufficient to overcome the expected veto of the governor.

The Washington County commissioners have been reluctant participants at the table, even though they recently filed suit to prevent Gov. Paul LePage from closing the facility in Bucks Harbor.

“We weren’t looking to wade into this fight,” said Chris Gardner, who chairs the commission. “But the commissioners represent the people of Washington County, so eventually we had to step up. Obviously, the people don’t want the facility closed. People have drawn their battle lines. The governor drew his when he made his move at 4 a.m. Then he said he’d put a bulldozer right through it (DCF) if he had to, and that’s when the commissioners thought they should step in. The suit just says not to destroy it, but to maintain the status quo. There are a lot of legal questions about the governor overstepping his authority here. Before we had the injunction in place, yes, some beds had been removed and some equipment was removed, but that has stopped since the injunction.” 

“The governor was without legal representation (when he acted). Only food and medicine were removed from the facility,” said Kevin Millay, a 30-year employee of DCF. “There are all kinds of court actions going on, but under statute, they can’t even change the name of the facility, much less close it. He’s overstepped his bounds.”

Janet Mills, Maine’s attorney general and a candidate for governor, is adamant about her position and recently appeared in court to explain it. “The Downeast Correctional Facility was mishandled at every stage, from conception to execution,” says Mills. “Most importantly, the move also represents a fundamental violation of the separation of powers in our state constitution, which does not permit the governor to unilaterally dismantle programs funded by the legislature.”

Rep. Robert Alley, a lobster fisherman and retired teacher from Beals, says, “He’s put his roadblocks up. The injunction will keep things going. If we can’t get the votes, we do have another alternative in the works.” Alley hesitates to elaborate on the alternative as he does not want to give LePage fodder for further retaliation. 

“I think as long as the legislature has a conversation going, we’re moving ahead,” says Gardner. “It’s been tough because our former two governors have been more receptive, to the people and the legislature, but we’ll get through this. There will be a vote early next week to keep it open for the next fiscal year.”

Gardner’s main concern is that the facts are not being publicized. “We need an honest conversation, and we’re not having an honest conversation,” he explains. “The Department of Corrections is in charge of the facts. Whoever is in charge of the facts has the upper hand.” 

For the past several years, for instance, $5 million has been the figure given to keep DCF up and running annually. When actually, that figure has been reported to be $2.6 million. The numbers -- whether employee numbers or dollars -- provided by DOC are those that held true when DCF was operating many years ago with a full staff and maximum beds.

Contrary to the above information, as the Calais Advertiser goes to press, there is no hearing on DCF on the legislative agenda for next week.