MACHIASPORT — The eventual reopening of the Downeast Correctional Facility will come with a bonus.
“The local neighbors are going to have an upgraded water system,” said Gary LaPlante, director of operations for the Maine Department of Corrections.
Before the prison opened in 1985, the site served as the Bucks Harbor Air Force Station. During this time, a contaminant was discovered in the soil and water, said LaPlante, who is in charge of the prison project in Washington County.
Filtration systems were installed at the prison and in the homes of a handful of neighbors.
LaPlante said officials have learned the Army Corps of Engineers is willing to remediate the contamination. The affected neighbors’ homes will be connected to a well on the prison property.
“That was terrific news for us to hear,” he said.
Former Governor Paul LePage abruptly shut down the prison in February 2018, citing costs. Following public outcry and pressure from Washington County lawmakers, Gov. Janet Mills announced in May that a new pre-release center for inmates would be built on the grounds of the facility.
A new main building will be constructed to include dorms, food service and space for visitation and programming. The existing administration building will be renovated to house both administrative offices and medical facilities. A couple other buildings on the site will also be rehabbed.
Six existing buildings will be torn down, including all three dorms. Asbestos will have to be removed prior to demolition, LaPlante said.
The new facility will house 50 inmates with 15 staff. Call-back dates for the 39 workers who were laid off when the prison closed will be extended to when the new facility opens. This means former employees can apply for these positions and, if rehired, they won’t lose their seniority or benefits.
LaPlante, who updated Washington County officials and legislators at a meeting Aug. 20, said the prison project is moving forward. He hoped the department would have the details of a contract with an architectural firm finalized this week.
Site prep work, including tests to see whether the existing septic system must be replaced, could begin this fall.
Once the contract with the architect is in place, design work will begin. LaPlante estimated that would take at least a month, after which the project would go out to bid.
“My goal is by the time the frost leaves the ground we will be ready for construction,” LaPlante said, adding he hopes to have the new prison open by the end of 2020. However, others involved with the project believe an opening in the spring of 2021 is more likely, he said.
LaPlante praised the Washington County delegation for pushing to reopen the facility.
“Having a new structure there is important to the citizens of Washington County,” he said.
State Rep. Will Tuell (R-Washington) said he and other Washington County officials will continue to push for a prison with a larger capacity.
Still, he said he was pleased with the current developments.
“It has been a long road,” he said, “but I think we are finally turning a corner.”