With a new governor and head of the state prison system in place, the administration in Augusta wants to re-establish a correctional facility in Washington County.
But it may not result in inmates and staff returning to Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. Community leaders in the county have argued for years against shutting it down and, since former Gov. Paul LePage closed it last summer, have been lobbying to have it reopened.
The prison once housed 150 inmates and employed approximately 70 people, and it had been targeted for closure repeatedly by state officials looking to consolidate the statewide prison system. Each time, political and business leaders in Washington County argued against it, saying the direct jobs it provided and the steady workforce that area employers could tap into by participating in the prison’s work release program were too valuable to discard.
Gov. Janet Mills and Randall Liberty, whom she appointed earlier this year to run the state prison system, have said they support opening a new pre-release center in the Machias area, so inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences can begin making the adjustment to out-of-prison life by participating in work-release programs in Washington County. The center would have room for up to 50 inmates and would employ 15 people.
Liberty said last week that at the pre-release center, inmates could receive counseling and job training to help make sure they abide by the law once they get out. He wants them to get jobs that they can keep after they are released so they can live in Washington County as private citizens.
“It’s important to me to establish a pre-release center in Washington County,” Liberty said, adding that it would be a minimum-security, unfenced facility. “My job is to get these guys jobs so they can support their families.”
But Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, said he remains opposed to the Department of Corrections proposal to open a pre-release center at another location. He said he and other legislators from Washington County want to restore and reopen the Machiasport prison, which functioned as an Air Force radar facility prior to be converted into a state prison in 1985.
“I’m not receptive to doing that,” Tuell said Thursday of opening a pre-release center somewhere closer to Machias. The relative isolation of the closed prison, in the Machiasport village of Bucks Harbor, is a better location for inmates than Machias, where medical marijuana shops and firearms stores could tempt them to reoffend, he said.
“These ideas just aren’t going to fly,” Tuell said. “I believe we need to use the facility we have.”
Two bills under consideration by the Legislature would make that happen, he said. One would provide funds to refurbish the site so it can reopen, and the other would provide the operating funds needed to keep it running.
Tuell added that said the inmate capacity of 50 beds proposed by the state should be considered a minimum.
“I’m open to it being a smaller facility to start,” he said.
Liberty said cost is an important factor in the department’s proposal. Opening a minimum-security facility in a pre-existing building in or close to Machias would cost close to $3 million, he said, while some estimates for reopening the Machiasport prison have been as high as $17 million.
Liberty said the department has come up with a revised estimate that suggests it could be reopened for around $10 million, which is slightly higher than the projected cost of building a new, 50-bed facility at the same site. Reopening the prison would take a fair amount of work because it was “pretty disassembled” after it was closed last summer and it already was not in great shape, he said. Building a new facility likely would take a couple of years, he added.
But supporters of reopening the prison have suggested it might be worth the extra wait. In testimony presented to legislators last week, Charles Rudelitch of the Sunrise County Economic Council said the economic return of reopening the prison would be nearly three times what the department’s smaller proposal is expected to generate.
It “would increase the economic output of Washington County by about $7.1 million annually,” he said, but the state proposal “would add about $2.5 million annually to the Washington County economy, or roughly $4.6 million less than a reopened Downeast Correctional Facility.”
A work session for legislators to discuss which proposal they might prefer has not yet been scheduled.