The Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport is pictured Feb. 18. Credit: Erin Rhoda / BDN

More than three years after the state shut down a prison in the Machiasport village of Bucks Harbor, a new but smaller work-release facility for inmates is under construction at the site and is expected to open sometime this fall.

The prison will house around 50 low-risk male inmates — fewer than the 140 or so that the former Downeast Correctional Facility used to house on site — and will restore a program that Washington County legislators and business leaders have said was a valuable asset to the area.

All the inmates will be eligible to leave the site each day to go to jobs at nearby businesses and then return in the evening, as many did when the prior prison operated at the former Air Force radar base from the 1980s until 2018. The prison’s work-release program was in high demand and was repeatedly defended by Washington County legislators whenever state officials sought to shut the facility down to reduce costs and consolidate the statewide prison system. In addition to housing around 140 inmates, the prison had approximately 70 employees.

The cost of building the new facility has been capped at $8 million but, according to a Department of Corrections official, the state expects it to be completed under budget. The rebuilt prison should be ready to accept inmates by late this fall, “though we are at the mercy of extenuating circumstances associated with COVID-19,” Anna Black, the department’s director of government affairs, said Thursday.

Area businesses have been unable to use low-risk state inmates to boost their employee rosters since then-Gov. Paul LePage closed the prison in 2018. At the time, political and business leaders in Washington County strongly objected, saying the program helped inmates make the transition back to society and that the resulting steady workforce area employers could tap into was too valuable to discard.

The prison’s supporters lobbied Gov. Janet Mills to reopen it after she took office in January 2019 and, after some negotiations, she agreed to build a smaller work-release facility at the same location. The new facility is expected to employ roughly 15 people.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....