MACHIASPORT — State Rep. Will Tuell (R-Machias) isn’t optimistic about the future of the shuttered Downeast Correctional Facility.
“This is it. This is the final act in the play,” he said last week after learning the Maine Department of Corrections is not likely to reopen the existing facility and, instead, plans to create a pre-release program somewhere in Machias that will house 50 inmates and employ 15 people.
“It really is a lot less than what we were looking for or expecting,” Tuell said.
In March 2018, former Governor Paul LePage abruptly closed the prison, moving about 65 inmates to other locations and laying off 36 employees.
The prison had long been the target of state officials hoping to consolidate the prison system.
Reopening the existing facility is just too expensive, said Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty. Initial estimates came in at $17 million to renovate and reopen the existing prison. Officials, including Washington County legislators, were able to whittle that down to $10 million to $10.5 million through a proposal that would open only one of three 50-man dorms along with a few support buildings.
It may be cheaper to locate a pre-release facility somewhere else, though a firm decision on whether or not to use some part of the existing prison has not been made, Liberty said.
Tuell opposes the idea of a pre-release facility, saying it “amounts to a halfway house.”
Liberty said a halfway house is for those who have already been released and are trying to transition back to society. In pre-release, inmates spend the last two years of their sentences in the program, learning job skills and other things necessary for transitioning back to civilian life.
“They’re totally different,” he said.
Tuell said the former prison’s work release program achieved much the same thing. Participating inmates were paid the same as their co-workers, allowing them to pay the jail for their room and board and, if necessary, make restitution. Many kept their jobs after release.
“Some worked [at the same places] after they got out of prison,” Tuell said. “There were some who started their own businesses.”
Tuell said he is also concerned about the former employees. Although a handful of the 36 who were laid off were able to take early retirement, the state’s current proposal would still leave almost half of them unemployed, basically “pitting one worker against another” for the open positions, he said.
In addition, displaced workers have a two-year call-back window, meaning after March 2020, they lose seniority, which affects their pay and benefits.
Liberty said the state is also concerned about the former employees but must consider the whole picture. Discussions among legislators, the department and the Governor about the matter are ongoing.
Tuell said the prison has been an important part of Washington County since 1985, when it was established at a former Air Force radar facility. At its peak, the prison employed as many as 70 people.
“We had a whole generation of people that owe their livelihood to this prison,” Tuell said, adding even those who have retired still feel a connection to it. “That’s why I’m going to keep on going with it.”