State correctional authorities announced the abrupt closure of a 150-bed prison in Washington County on Friday and have notified 55 employees there that they will lose their jobs within weeks.

Notices were delivered Friday to every employee at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, and to a handful educators at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the state’s only youth detention facility, according to unions representing the workers.

The Machiasport prison currently houses roughly 100 low-security inmates who have been convicted of a variety of major felonies and are nearing the end of their incarceration, including some sex offenders, lawmakers said.

In a brief statement issued Friday, the Department of Corrections said the prisoners will be transferred to other state facilities before the planned June 10 closure, and that there is no threat to public safety.

But a statement about the layoffs from the Senate Republican Office on Friday said that Gov. Paul LePage “is rumored to be commuting the sentences of 75 prisoners after the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety voted against a measure included in the proposed biennial budget to zero out funding to the facility.”

LePage’s office declined to comment on the layoffs Friday, and Corrections Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick wouldn’t address the possibility of commutations.

“I can’t respond to that,” Fitzpatrick said by phone Friday.

He later issued a statement:

“If the security staff is interested in relocating, the department is willing to work with them to stay employed with the department,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are now working with the Maine Department of Labor to accommodate a Rapid Response team at the Machiasport facility as we speak.”

LEPAGE’S AUTHORITY TO CLOSE PRISON QUESTIONED

According to representatives for the corrections union and a public employee’s union, 44 correctional officers and 11 administrative and other staffers are being laid off at the prison, and six teachers and one assistant principal are being let go at the A.R. Gould School at Long Creek.

The layoffs are in line with LePage’s proposed biennial budget, which calls for Downeast’s closure and for even deeper reductions in school staff at Long Creek.

But legislators on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee rejected both of the proposed cuts during recent budget discussions, leaving some legislators questioning whether LePage has the authority to close the prison without legislative approval or oversight.

“This is a different game, because the committee voted to keep that in the budget,” said Sen. Joyce A. Maker, R-Calais, who along with Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, issued a statement that criticized the governor for the closure and mentioned the rumor of commutations.

Although no legislators interviewed had talked with the governor’s staff and Fitzpatrick is forbidden by LePage from communicating with lawmakers, word reached Maker and Tuell that the governor was indifferent to how the committee had voted.

“He said he doesn’t care, he’s going to close it whether there’s money in the budget or not,” Maker said.

Lawmakers have until June 30 to approve the next two-year spending measure.

Currently there is little wiggle room in state prison capacity, lawmakers said. During discussion about the Department of Corrections budget this year, Fitzpatrick told legislators that there were roughly 50 empty beds in all Maine prisons on a good day, with occasionally even as few as 20 open slots, said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who sits on the criminal justice committee.

‘THERE’S NO PLACE TO PUT THESE PEOPLE’

“I think the feeling was, ‘Look, there’s no place to put these people,'” Diamond said. “What are we going to do with them?”

Jim Mackie, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, the union that represents the 44 correctional employees at the prison, said he also had heard a rumor about commutations.

“It’s tough to think that a law-and-order, right-wing conservative governor would even dream of putting 75 inmates on the street,” he said. “I don’t know how any governor can look at Washington County and pull DCF out of there and not see that the county will be devastated.”

The decision to close the prison on such short notice also raised legal questions about whether LePage overstepped his authority.

In April, in response to questions from Maker, the Calais lawmaker, about the limits of the governor’s power to close the facility, Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda M. Pistner wrote that because the prison was created in statute and funded by the Legislature, it cannot be unilaterally eliminated by the executive branch. The letter is not a formal opinion of the Attorney General’s Office, but was offered as commentary on the legal issues surrounding the facility’s future.

“The governor cannot unilaterally amend statutes without violating the separation of powers provision in Article III of the Maine Constitution,” Pistner wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Press Herald.

“Similarly, the current budget establishes the Downeast Correctional Facility as a discrete program by making appropriations specific to this facility. A program so established cannot be eliminated by the executive branch.”

Pistner wrote that this limit on the governor’s power would apply even when the law permits the governor to curtail spending if expenses outpace income.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment Friday.

LONG CREEK LAYOFFS PUT ACCREDITATION AT RISK

The layoffs at Long Creek will save $1 million annually, but could have alsocost the school its accreditation. As with the Downeast prison, legislators on the criminal justice committee voted to keep the funding at Long Creek intact.

Both Tuell and Maker said that the prison, with a vibrant work-release program, provides valuable labor to area businesses and institutions. Prisoners also provide seasonal labor, including during the blueberry harvest, and during holiday wreath season.

“That impact is great in an area with a few thousand people,” Tuell said. “Forty-six jobs is more like 400 or 500 jobs in a place like Portland.”

Asked whether he thought the layoff notices were a high-stakes budgetary gamble, Tuell said LePage’s tactics are different from those of previous governors.

“I think he is very determined,” he said. “And in one little bit of fairness, other governors have tried as well. They haven’t gone to the lengths he’s gone.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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