– By TOM WALSH

Bangor Daily News

BUCKS HARBOR – Closing the Down East Correctional Facility would relocate about two dozen low-security inmates who have been trained by the Maine Forest Service to assist in fighting wildfires in Washington County.

Mothballing the facility, which is now at capacity with 149 inmates, has been proposed by Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte. He says that reassigning the minimum- and medium-security prisoners now housed there to the five other prisons statewide would save the state $4 million a year. The prison’s annual budget is now $6.5 million.

Ponte’s proposal wasn’t included in recommendations made in late November by the Task Force to Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services, a bipartisan group assigned to find ways to cut state spending.

The task force sent the proposal back to the governor’s office. No new proposal has since been put forth, and the budget now under consideration does not call for closing the facility.

Ultimately, however, the facility’s fate rests in the hands of the Legislature. The fiscal pros and cons of closing the Bucks Harbor prison will be discussed at some point by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired Maine State Police officer who is now a member of that committee.

Burns was among a regional delegation of legislators who hosted a visit to the Bucks Harbor facility Dec. 19 by LePage, Ponte and Dan Billings, the governor’s chief counsel.

While not committing to keeping the prison open during that visit, Burns said LePage was “very receptive” to concerns about how a closure would affect Washington County communities in a region with Maine’s highest unemployment rate.

“The projection is that it would eliminate 68 direct jobs, and a total of 128 jobs if you include the indirect jobs,” Burns said.

Minimum-security inmates are organized into small work crews that, under the watch of prison guards, staff public works projects outside the prison, doing everything from road work for the Maine Department of Transportation to painting churches.

At any given time, the prison’s population includes 20 to 30 inmates who have been trained by the Maine Forest Service to assist with fighting wildfires.

“They’ve certainly been a good crew for us,” said Bill Williams, the state’s chief forest ranger.

The Down East Correctional Facility was established in 1985, when the state took ownership of what was once a U.S. Air Force radar installation. The facility has been targeted for closure twice, in 1994 and 1995.

As a result of deferred maintenance over the past 26 years, Ponte estimates it would cost the state $1 million to bring the facility up to code.