A car sits parked outside a security gate at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport in February 2017. Credit: Bill Trotter

The attorneys challenging Gov. Paul LePage’s administration over the sudden closure of Downeast Correctional Facility last month are demanding that the prison be reopened Friday or they will return to court for enforcement.

Attorney David Webbert said Friday morning that he had received no indication that the administration plans to abide by a Kennebec County Superior Court order issued Wednesday that found LePage lacked the authority to abruptly close the Machiasport facility on Feb. 9.

However, a private attorney representing LePage responded Friday afternoon with a letter arguing that Webbert’s demands are “inconsistent” with the ruling and “unreasonable in any event.”

A letter dated Thursday from Webbert’s firm to LePage’s attorney calls for the reinstatement of all laid-off employees — with full back pay — and the return of inmates who were moved as part of the closure. The layoff notices issued in February were effective March 3.

[Judge says that LePage doesn’t have power to close Down East prison]

“Since the department was able to close DCF in a matter of hours, it should be able to restore the status quo by tomorrow,” reads the Thursday letter. “At the very least, the Department should place the employees on paid status with back pay.”

The letter, signed by attorney Jeffrey Neil Young, requested a response by noon Friday.

Patrick Strawbridge, who is representing the LePage administration, wrote in a letter to Webbert’s firm Friday afternoon that a decision about how the order will be implemented should be reached by early next week.

“The order requires the department to operate DCF consistent with the governing statutes, but it does not require any specific level of staffing, programs, expenditures, or number of prisoners,” wrote Strawbridge, who added that “back pay may be available to remedy any harm incurred by any employees who the commissioner, in his discretion, deems necessary to be recalled to the facility.”

A spokesman for the Maine State Employees Association, which represents some of the laid-off employees, said Friday that neither the union or its members have heard anything from the administration since the court order.

Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for LePage, said the governor intends to meet with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick and attorneys on Monday to determine next steps.

Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy granted a temporary injunction Wednesday that had been sought by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, labor unions who represent DCF workers and the Washington County Commission. In the decision, Murphy concluded that only the Legislature has the authority to close the prison, which is established in Maine law. That would require an amendment to the law or a failure to appropriate money to keep the prison open. Current funding for prison operations runs out at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

While Murphy ordered the facility be reopened, she wrote that it is not within the court’s authority to tell the Department of Corrections how many staff the facility requires or how many inmates should be housed there, which appeared to create a gray area in the ruling. Webbert disagreed.

[LePage rushes to close controversial Down East prison]

“They have to comply,” said Webbert. “The court doesn’t go through this for the exercise. … There is no gray area for someone reading that order in good faith.”

Webbert said the administration would have to apply through the court for a stay of the injunction, which if granted could overturn Murphy’s order, but that he has received no communications regarding that.

“If there’s non-compliance, we would go back to the court,” he said.

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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.