In this February 2017 file photo, a car sits parked outside a security gate at the now-closed Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. The prison was closed earlier this month, but plans are in the works for a possible Washington County pre-release center. Credit: Bill Trotter

Gov. Paul LePage will support creating a prison pre-release center in Washington County after his sudden closure earlier this month of the Downeast Correctional Facility, but with conditions including that Legislature authorize selling the shuttered prison.

The Washington County pre-release center, which would help low-risk prisoners transition to independence after their release with job training and other services, has been discussed since at least 2016, when LePage and the Legislature authorized a nearly $150 million bond for expansion and renovations at the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham “and a facility owned by the Department of Corrections in Washington County.”

Now, some lawmakers are calling for the state to follow through with the goal of opening the new center by September.

“This bill is about keeping our promises, plain and simple,” said Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who presented a concept bill Wednesday that would explicitly authorize the center.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said “it was a handshake deal and Washington County deserves to have their end held up.”

Aaron Chadbourne, a policy adviser for LePage, told a legislative committee Wednesday that the administration would support the bill if it includes the following provisions:

— That it allow the state to acquire property for the pre-release center.

— That it allow the Department of Corrections and Department of Labor to work with private businesses, including the possible future creation of “satellite” facilities where prisoners in work-release programs could be based.

— That it allows for coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide counseling services for prisoners, including mental health and substance abuse treatment.

— That it repeal the authority for Downeast Correctional Facility, which currently exists in Maine law.

— That it authorize the state to sell the Downeast Correctional Facility property in Machiasport.

Chadbourne said the state has already been looking at properties where the center could be located and is prepared to purchase one and implement its plan quickly if the Legislature approves the bill. He said the administration plans a “cost-effective, lean staffing model” to accommodate 15-20 inmates at a time.

A number of employees of the former Downeast Correctional Facility, along with local officials and business owners, testified generally in support of the bill, but were not without concerns.

Daniel Ramsdell, a corrections officer who was laid off when the prison closed, questioned why the pre-release center is being scaled to accommodate 20 prisoners when Downeast Correctional at times had up to 100 inmates in work-release programs.

“I don’t understand why you’d only want to put 20 prisoners there,” said Ramsdell. “That’s crazy and it’s an insult to the employers in Washington County.”

Rep. Robert Alley Sr., D-Beals, agreed.

“If we let this go, we’re going to wind up with 20 beds and a little building,” he said. “That’s not the reason we’re here.”

David Whitney, who owns Machias-based businesses involved in packaging and delivery services, said at times he has needed 20 work-release employees but was able to get only a dozen from the former prison’s program.

Maker’s bill contains no language as of now and will be under development in the coming weeks before being recommended for consideration by the full Legislature.

In the meantime, the fate of Downeast Correctional Facility is bleak but not 100 percent sealed. Earlier this month, following a lawsuit from county officials and labor unions representing employees of the prison, a Maine Superior Court judge ordered the state to stop dismantling the former prison until the lawsuit could be resolved and the Legislature could act on a bill to reverse the closure. That bill was killed earlier this month by Republicans in the House of Representatives.

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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.