With just over two weeks to go in this year’s legislative session — officially anyway — my colleagues and I are once again confronted with Gov. Paul LePage’s obsession with closing Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.
That obsession, bubbling for years as Legislature after Legislature denied LePage’s wish to shutter one of Maine’s most cost-effective, transformational correctional facilities, exploded rather spectacularly in the early morning hours of Feb. 9, when Maine law enforcement and corrections officers were ordered to close the prison and transport about 60 inmates elsewhere — without the consent or knowledge of the 186 men and women who serve in the Legislature.
We can argue whether Maine is too soft or too tough on crime. We can argue why people commit crimes, and how we can reduce that. We can argue whether we have enough law enforcement officers out there keeping our state safe. We can even argue whether our jails and prisons are doing all they can to keep people from coming back into the correctional system. But whether you are the most ardent progressive or staunchest conservative, this governor broke the law and justified it rather than let policymakers have these very important debates.
Perhaps it is because Democrats, Republicans and independents in the Legislature have continually supported keeping this prison open and have educated themselves on the work-release and community-service programs it offers inmates — and the restitution those programs offers victims — and the role the prison plays within the entire correctional system.
Perhaps it is because lawmakers have seen through false claims that the facility is ailing — its kitchen has been certified by inspectors from LePage’s own Health and Human Services Department, and it has passed inspection after inspection from the fire marshal’s office — and that it costs too much per prisoner — data from LePage’s own Corrections Department show that the facility is actually the second-most cost-effective correctional facility in Maine.
Perhaps the governor wants to privatize our prisons. Perhaps he has a grudge against legislators from across the spectrum who dare disagree with him publicly. Or perhaps he is just upset over not getting his own way.
Regardless, Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Micaela Murphy ruled last month that Downeast Correctional must be reopened, and that the Legislature has a say in whether it is ultimately closed. That’s right; the Legislature has a say in this facility and its future.
Eight of the 10 House and Senate leaders agreed that we ought to look at funding Downeast Correctional past June when I submitted legislation — LD 1704 — to do just that earlier this session. An overwhelming majority of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee also agreed when they heard my bill — and hours of testimony from businesses, communities, prisoner advocates and workers at the prison — and ultimately passed it unanimously a few days before the half-baked attempt to close it.
On March 27, policymakers, including many of my Republican colleagues who are having second thoughts about what the administration did, how it was done and what they have been told about the prison, voted 95-53 in support of funding Downeast Correctional.
Now, the future of this prison is in the hands of the budget committee. It is my sincere hope that each of the 13 men and women figuring out the finances take a big picture view and support not only one more year of funding for Downeast Correctional, but also require the Maine Department of Corrections to develop a detailed plan for the facility’s future when the new Legislature is sworn in.
Some might say that is kicking the can down the road. I would submit that with all that has gone on this year — the illegal closure, the court cases, the misinformation the governor’s staff has distributed — that we clean this up and follow a fair, open, thorough process to restore Mainers’ faith and trust in government.
If former Gov. John Baldacci had done what LePage did, Republicans would rightfully be up in arms. If former Gov. Angus King had done it, he probably wouldn’t be a senator today. When Baldacci wanted to close Downeast Correctional, he tried to find an alternative. Same for King. We should hold LePage and future administrations to the same high standard or we have only ourselves to blame for what follows.
Will Tuell, R-East Machias, represents Maine House District 139.
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