Gov. Paul LePage ignited a political firestorm by quietly emptying Washington County’s Downeast Correctional Facility in the pre-dawn hours Friday despite lawmakers’ repeated votes to keep the prison open.

Although LePage’s desire to close the Machiasport prison and lay off its staff was well known, his administration’s decision to transfer the 63 remaining inmates to other facilities Friday morning caught local officials by surprise. Elected officials in Washington County said they were “blindsided” by the transfer – conducted in the early-morning hours by state police – and predicted the minimum-security prison’s closure will do further harm to a rural region already struggling economically.

“It is lost upon no one up here the manner in which the governor did this,” said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners. “If this is a decision that he feels so strongly about, why do it at 4 o’clock in the morning under secrecy? Own it, Mr. Governor. … It shows complete disregard for the men and women who work there and shows complete disregard for the magnitude of his office.”

According to union officials representing corrections workers, more than 60 inmates were loaded onto buses “under the cover of darkness” for transfer to other facilities, while the 31 staff members were placed on administrative leave and given layoff notices. While union officials said inmates were transferred to Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston. LePage’s office said inmates were sent to several other facilities but declined to provide specifics.

LePage spokesman Peter Steele noted that the governor has clearly expressed his views for years that Downeast Correctional was outdated, inefficient and increasingly unnecessary.

“Unlike past governors, Gov. LePage will not bow to local political pressure to keep open an expensive and inefficient facility to operate,” Steele said in a statement. “Past efforts simply kicked the can down the road and left the question of the Downeast Correctional Facility’s future in doubt, despite knowing that it is not in the state prison system’s best interest to leave it open. This is not a legislative question, this is a management question.”

However, LePage chose to move forward with his long-held plans to close Downeast Correctional at a time when lawmakers are actively working on the issue.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, and Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, would provide $5.5 million to the facility next year while ordering a comprehensive study of the impacts of its closure. That bill received a 10-1 vote in support from members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. And last year, the full Legislature voted by overwhelming numbers to support a bill to fund the prison for two years.

So the timing of LePage’s decision to clear the prison population seemed to intensify the bipartisan pushback.

The Maine Senate’s three top Republicans said the governor’s actions run contrary to the Legislature’s decision to keep funding the prison and a 2016 bond measure that mandated a correctional facility in Washington County.

“The people of Washington County deserve better than this,” Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough said in a joint statement. “Maine Senate Republicans are currently looking at all available options.”

The office of Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, said in a statement that the governor’s action “flies in the face of the clear intent of the Legislature as expressed in the biennial budget, in statute and in the deliberations of the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.” Mills’ office was exploring “all possible actions” in response to the planned closure.

Not surprisingly, reactions were strongest in Washington County.

“This is the worst thing that can happen to Washington County,” said Maker, who has been helping lead the charge to preserve the jobs at Downeast Correctional. “We were blindsided by this whole thing that has happened. It has devastated the people of Washington County.”

Former Senate President Kevin Raye – a Perry Republican who worked closely with LePage during his first two years in office – posted on Facebook that he was “so deeply ashamed of the Governor’s vindictive, short-sighted and despicable action.”

“His action shows utter contempt for the process and for the people of Washington County who twice supported him at the polls,” Raye wrote. “This must not stand.”

Downeast Correctional Facility was built in 1955 by the U.S. Air Force and transferred to the state in the mid-80s. The minimum security prison has approximately 150 beds but was down to less than half-capacity on Friday because the LePage administration stopped sending inmates there months ago. The facility costs the state roughly $5 million a year to operate.

Last May, state correctional authorities announced the closure of the 150-bed prison and notified 55 employees that they would lose their jobs within weeks. While the facility did stay open, the state has not sent any new prisoners there since October.

Both of LePage’s immediate predecessors in the Blaine House – independent Gov. Angus King and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci – also considered closing Downeast Correctional but never moved forward with a plan. Asked about his decision, LePage again raised concerns about the costs of the aging facility. “I am the chief executive of the state of Maine,” LePage told reporters, according to a video posted by WCSH-TV. “As I sit here today, I have a jail that costs more to operate than the maximum security prison in the state of Maine. The legislature did not fund it for the total, two-year biennial.

“And at some point it was going to close and I saw today as an ability to save the state a little bit more money and to help the Legislature fund Medicaid expansion, which passed in November.”

The director of the Downeast Correctional Facility sent a memo to his workers in January reminding them that LePage “will be watching closely” while they testified before a legislative panel about Tuell’s bill to keep the minimum security prison open for another year.

The prison housed low-risk inmates, many of whom were preparing to transition back into society. Dozens of Downeast Correction’s inmates also worked at local businesses through a work-release program, sometimes even turning those temporary jobs into full-time employment after their release. It was unclear Friday whether those employers were notified before the prisoners were transferred.

The Sunrise County Economic Council, which focuses on job creation and economic development in Washington County, had projected that the facility’s closure would result in the loss of 55 jobs among prison and medical staff, along with 22 others in the community. Charles Rudelitch, the council’s executive director, said the fear is that a permanent closure of the facility will impact those direct and indirect jobs as well as the companies that rely on inmates’ through the work-release program.

“Many of these guards and administrators, this is their career so they are going to have to leave the county or retire,” Rudelitch said. “There isn’t another Department of Corrections facility in Washington County to hire them, which means we may be losing a couple of dozen families in the county.”

LePage has committed to building a new work-release facility in Washington County, and Steele said the Department of Corrections continues to work toward that goal. But Steele said the governor does not believe a prison should be the “economic development engine of a region.”

“Instead, Gov. LePage has prioritized efforts to encourage the university system to invest in a more prominent marine research hub at the University of Maine at Machias, which could grow jobs and investment in the area,” Steele said. “The governor has also supported efforts to enhance regional transportation and shipping options that could position the Washington County region as a major North American entry point for international trade, competing with Canada and strengthening trade and shipping routes in the North Atlantic.”

Gardner, the county commissioner, has worked closely with LePage in his capacity as director of the Eastport Port Authority and actively campaigned for LePage’s two gubernatorial campaigns. On Friday, however, a furious Gardner said he and other county residents feel betrayed by what he described as LePage’s “vindictive” actions after the Legislature has repeatedly voted to keep the facility open.

“There have been many times I have defended this governor, and he has done many things that are good for the state of Maine,” Gardner said. “But on this one, this county, as a whole, is absolutely shocked. …For Washington County, it’s a double-heartbreak. Obviously we are losing this facility, but we helped elect that man and this is a tarnish on his legacy.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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