Despite strong local and legislative opposition, Gov. Paul LePage early Friday morning took surprise steps to close Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.

[Down East residents renew fight against LePage plan to close prison]

Downeast staff have been placed on paid administrative leave and received layoff notices effective March 3, according to union representatives.

LePage told reporters outside his office Friday that the facility costs too much to run.

“The Legislature did not fund for the total two-year biennial, and at some point it was going to close,” LePage said, according to Maine Public. “I saw today as an ability to save the state a little bit more money.”

Buses and Maine State Police teams serving as escorts arrived at the gates of the facility at 4:30 a.m. Friday, according to Jim Mackie, a staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 93, the union that represents corrections workers.

“Nobody knew,” Mackie said. “They did this under the cover of darkness. We’re all just kind of in reaction mode this morning.”

Until this morning, the prison housed 63 inmates, and operations cost about $5 million per year. LePage has been trying to close the facility, but lawmakers have pushed back. A bill to keep it open is pending in the Legislature.

[LePage expected to keep Down East prison open after recommending closure]

“This is not a new issue,” Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said in an email. “Other governors have tried to close this outdated facility, which is expensive and inefficient to run. For the past couple of years, Gov. LePage has been quite clear in his intent to close Downeast Correctional Facility.”

Steele said information about where each prisoner will be transferred can’t be released because of security concerns but that they will be “housed in various correctional facilities” and provided opportunities to contact family members.

“They will also be notified that they’ll be prioritized for work release and other opportunities they were already eligible for,” Steele wrote in an email.

Mackie said the inmates were being moved to Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston. He said his union is exploring whether LePage’s move violates union contract rules, though he said there is language in the contract regarding the closure of facilities.

Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said in a written statement Friday that LePage’s action “flies in the face of the clear intent of the Legislature” in terms of the state budget and state law that establishes the Downeast Correctional Facility.

“We will continue to explore all possible actions in response to the numerous complaints this office has received about the closure,” said Mills, who made a similar argument in an April 2017 advisory opinion for lawmakers.

The governor’s office said a total of 39 employees will lose their jobs, eight of whom are eligible for retirement. The rest will receive prioritization if there is a layoff recall and may exercise “bumping rights,” which is a contract provision that allows them to continue working by taking the job of a less senior state employee in the same job classification.

LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz noted there were 154 jobs posted on the Maine Job Link website in Washington County as of Thursday afternoon.

“Obviously, not every job will be a match but that is what the CareerCenter staff will work with people on,” Rabinowitz said. “Some may be eligible for retraining.”

Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, has led the effort to keep the facility open. She said Friday morning that “it’s a sad day in Washington County and a sad day for the state of Maine that a governor would take this action without even having a conversation.

“Usually you do these things because you don’t have the money,” Maker said. “He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and he doesn’t care whether things are approved by the Legislature or not.”

Mackie shared Maker’s frustration.

“I just find this absolutely frigging incredible that the governor of the state of Maine wouldn’t even give the political representatives from the county notice that he was doing this,” Mackie said.

In 2017, LePage attempted to close the facility as part of his two-year state budget proposal and in May of 2017 announced plans to close the prison the following month. Layoff notices were given to 46 employees, and LePage said he planned to issue conditional commutations to some prisoners to move them out of the jail, including a work re-entry program.

Days later, LePage reversed course and said he wanted to fund the prison for at least another nine months.

Rabinowitz said Friday the Department of Corrections has not considered pardoning or issuing commutations to any of the affected inmates but in the coming weeks could expand the Supervised Community Confinement Program, which allows prisoners deemed “low risk” to be released under probation supervision until their sentence is complete.

Lawmakers, particularly those from Washington County, have strongly opposed closing the facility, which they said would hurt Washington County’s economy and devastate families who rely on the jobs.

LD 1704, which is pending, would provide $5.5 million to keep the prison open through June 2019. The bill also calls on the Department of Corrections to analyze the effects of the closure. Earlier this week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-1-1 in favor of the new funding. The next step is consideration by the full Legislature.

Downeast Correctional Facility was opened in 1955 by the U.S. Air Force and acquired by the Department of Corrections in 1985. The DOC testified this year to the Legislature that there would be enough beds within the Maine prison system to accommodate the facility’s prisoners.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.