AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Republican Gov. Paul LePage moved Friday to empty a minimum security prison as Maine lawmakers debated the future of the facility, which costs $5 million per year to run.
Lawmakers fought LePage's moves last year to close Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, which ended up receiving funding through June of this year. But LePage spokesman Peter Steele said that the 63-year-old Washington County facility's 149 beds will no longer be needed as of March 31.
AFSCME Council 93 representative Jim Mackie said about 50 prison staffers were placed on administrative leave and received layoff notices effective early March. On Friday, state police and corrections employees arrived at the facility without notice and transferred its inmates to the 374-bed Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, according to Mackie.
Downeast Correctional Facility recently housed about 60 state inmates, while Mountain View Correctional Facility housed nearly 360, according to Department of Corrections figures.
"This governor with a snap of his fingers has just pulled the rug out from 51 employees who work at this place, and the whole of Washington County," said Mackie, who added that surrounding communities benefit from jobs and free prison labor. "He is thumbing his nose at the Legislature and basically saying, 'Go ahead and fund the facilities, there won't be anybody there.'"
Steele said it's a management question, not a legislative matter. He said LePage — who has long pushed to close Downeast — doesn't believe a prison should be a region's economic engine.
"Gov. LePage believes that the (Department of Corrections) should manage the prison system efficiently and effectively based on the strategic needs of the system — not based on local political pressure," Steele said in an email.
Steele said the transfer didn't need to be announced. He added that prisoners will be able to call their family, notify them of their new location, and arrange for weekend visits.
"You don't broadcast on the nightly news the date and time of the prisoner transfer," he said. "It's a security issue; it could turn dangerous very quickly."
But Washington Republican Rep. Will Tuell called LePage's move to close the prison an end run around lawmakers. Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner last April said that the governor can't unilaterally change statutes establishing programs like Downeast Correctional Facility without violating the separation of powers.
The Legislature is considering Tuell's bill, which would only allow the prison to close if lawmakers pass a law. The bill's online summary says it would also fund the prison for another year and require a report on the economic impact of closing the prison.
LePage said he's committed to building a work-release facility in Washington County, but Tuell said, "I'll believe when I see it."
"It is as others have said a dangerous day for our state when one man has all the power and can call all the shots," Tuell said. "This is not about public safety but gamesmanship. Trying to force our hand."