AUGUSTA — Washington County commissioners moved Tuesday to block the LePage administration from dismantling the Downeast Correctional Facility while lawmakers decide whether to continue funding the now-empty prison.

In an injunction request filed in Kennebec County Superior Court, the commissioners asked the court to temporarily prevent the LePage administration from removing equipment or other materials from the Machiasport facility in order to give lawmakers time to work on the prison’s future. Downeast Correctional employees, who were placed on administrative leave last week, relayed reports of beds and other equipment being taken out of the minimum-security prison on Tuesday.

While a judge declined to issue an immediate injunction, the court is slated to hear arguments on the request Wednesday in Augusta.

“It is one thing to move the prisoners, but it is another thing to start removing the facility,” Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said in an interview Tuesday evening. “It is our fear that removing equipment . . . from the facility would render it useless to make it more difficult for the Legislature or a future administration to re-open it.”

The court petition comes four days after Gov. Paul LePage had the minimum-security prison emptied and notified more than 30 staff members that their jobs would end on March 3. Arriving before dawn Friday, armed state police troopers loaded the 63 remaining inmates at Downeast Correctional Facility onto buses and transferred them to Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston and other jails.

But the decision to abruptly close Downeast Correctional – despite repeated legislative votes to keep it open – infuriated officials in a county that solidly backed LePage in both of his gubernatorial elections.


Rep. Will Tuell, an East Machias Republican, said he is “absolutely” convinced that LePage quickly emptied the facility because a bill to fund the prison for another fiscal year was moving through the Legislature.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to endorse Tuell’s bill to provide $5.5 million to the prison for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Tuell said supporters “have to keep plugging away” at the issue in the Legislature and elsewhere.

“That is why the county filed the injunction today, to stop the place from being ransacked or bulldozed,” Tuell said.

Built in 1955 by the U.S. Air Force, Downeast Correctional Facility is a roughly 150-bed prison that, until Friday, served as one of the state’s pre-release centers for prisoners considered low risk. Many inmates worked at local businesses as part of the prison’s work-release program, and closure of the prison has left some businesses scrambling to find replacement workers.

LePage has been pushing for years to close the Washington County prison, which he views as overly costly, inefficient and increasingly unnecessary given additional capacity at other facilities.

“By March 31, 2018, the Department of Corrections will have enough new beds in other parts of the system that the beds in Downeast will no longer be needed,” LePage spokesman Peter Steele said Friday after news broke of the prisoner transfers. “Governor LePage believes that DOC should manage the prison system efficiently and effectively based on the strategic needs of the system-not based on local political pressure. The Governor has confidence in DOC’s long-term plan to modernize facilities and balance its ability to serve the prison population.”


But the Legislature has repeatedly voted to continue funding the prison, in large part because of the facility’s economic importance rural Washington County.

Also Tuesday, more than 20 employees at Downeast Correctional and some supporters were at the State House urging lawmakers to continue supporting the facility. They met with House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, as well as Attorney General Janet Mills, both of whom have been critical of the LePage administration’s actions to begin closing the prison.

Some of those employees said they planned to stick around to hear the governor address the Legislature during the annual State of the State address, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

“You can’t give up hope,” said John Mills, who has served as a guard for 19 years at Downeast Correctional. “That’s why we are here today.”


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