ELLSWORTH — At 4:30 a.m. Friday, Maine State Police and Department of Corrections officers notified 51 staff members at Machiasport’s Downeast Correctional Facility that they were being placed on paid administrative leave, effective immediately.
They will be laid off by March 2, according to a union representative for the officers.
Jim Mackie, the Maine representative for Council 93 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is a union for public employees, said he learned about the action early in the morning.
Inmates were transported to the Charleston Correctional Facility, which is 122 miles away. They were scheduled to arrive around 9:45 a.m.
The decision to abruptly shut down the facility came from Governor Paul LePage, according to Mackie and Krysta West, the director of communications for the Maine Senate Republicans Office. Mackie said no legislators, prison officials or union representatives were notified about the move beforehand.
“I’ve never heard of a governor who, under cover of darkness, closes a facility,” Mackie said. “Totally circumvents the legislative process.”
For Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Washington County), the issue came as a surprise. She said the Senate president hadn’t even been notified before the move.
“I am shocked,” Maker said. “I think this is the low of the low of what our chief executive has done, to hurt not only the people of Washington County, but the families of the people who work there, the businesses.”
Funding for the Washington County prison has been a lingering issue in Maine politics. Last year, funding for the facility passed in the Legislature, meaning as of now the prison is fully funded through June 30.
“I think this Governor’s made it very clear. I think he has contempt for the Legislature. I think he’s tried to bully things through,” Mackie said. “To go up in the middle of the night and do this is incredible.”
“This is not a new issue,” wrote LePage’s communications director, Peter Steele, in an email Friday. “Other governors have examined options to close this outdated facility, which is much more expensive and inefficient to operate than other correctional facilities.
“For the past couple of years, Governor LePage has been quite clear in his intent to close [Downeast Correctional Facility].”
Maker said some of her constituents were posting on Facebook about how the move struck them as dictatorial. She said her husband asked whether she could come home, because the Governor would do whatever he wanted to, regardless of the Legislature.
In 2017, Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner said in an email to a lawmaker that the Governor does not have the power to amend statutes put forth by the Legislature, according to Maker.
“He doesn’t have the jurisdiction to close a prison,” Maker said. “What he’s done is move the prisoners. Does he have that right? I think he probably does have that right … but even if he does, is that the right thing to do?”
She said lawmakers are working with the Attorney General’s Office to determine what kinds of powers LePage has in this situation.
Maker and Sen. William Tuell (R-Washington County) submitted a bill on Jan. 29 to the Legislature that would extend funding for the facility and study improvements that would be needed.
That bill received unanimous support from the criminal justice committee, according to West. Now, she said, that bill would be much more difficult to push forward, since no one is in the facility anymore.
“We’re just going to be throwing money at an empty facility,” West said, “which is a waste of money.”
For Mackie, the issue goes beyond just the jail.
“In Washington County, 51 people on the street, out of work. With no sense at all if they’re going to be able to make their house payments, if they’re going to have health insurance,” Mackie said. “You’re not just pulling the rug out on 51 people, you just pulled the rug out on Washington County. Period.”
Steele defended the move as a necessary one, citing testimony from Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick.
“Many have complained that the transfer happened unannounced,” Steele wrote in his email. “This is a prison. It is a secure facility. You don’t broadcast on the nightly news the date and time of the prisoner transfer. It is a security issue; it could get dangerous very quickly.
“Also, we cannot release the information about where each prisoner is going because of security reasons. However, each prisoner will be able to call their family and notify them of their new location, as well as arrange for weekend visits. They will also be notified that they’ll be prioritized for work release and other opportunities they were already eligible for. As of this morning, there were only 63 prisoners at [Downeast Correctional Facility].”
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error. Sen. Joyce Maker represents Washington County.