WILTON — Residents of Washington County have accused Gov. LePage of “Gestapo” tactics in the closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility. In the rush to condemn the emptying of the Machiasport prison, two crucial questions were overlooked: How will the closing affect outcomes for inmates throughout the system? And how will the closing affect community safety?

Essential background information includes two important facts. According to a 2017 New England Public Policy Center report, Maine has the highest recidivism rate in New England: Fifty-six percent of those who serve time in our state will reoffend within three years of release and return to prison.

The second important fact is that Maine’s prison population continues to rise despite falling crime rates. According to Maine Department of Corrections statistics, Maine’s prison population reached an all-time high of 2,414 inmates in 2017. That is an increase of 25 percent (489 inmates) in the four years since a previous high in 2013 – a shocking figure.

RE-ENTRY PROGRAMS

Why is Maine’s recidivism rate so high, and how does closing Downeast Correctional Facility affect those numbers? The federal government (see the 2016 Justice Department report titled “Roadmap to Re-entry“) and many individual states have taken steps to correct the last four decades of mass incarceration by implementing strong re-entry programs. These ease a former inmate’s transition back to society and reduce recidivism rates. Maine, under the leadership of Paul LePage, has done the opposite.

In Maine, more money has gone to buildings and less money has gone to rehabilitation. In 2015, eligibility for furlough programs – which allow inmates to arrange for housing, employment, education, participation in treatment and maintain and/or re-establish family ties – was cut from five years to two years prior to release. No matter what the length of an individual’s sentence, rehabilitation programs for addiction are not available to them until the two years before release. Most qualified inmates will never go through a re-entry program.

That is what made the Downeast Correctional Facility so important. By closing Downeast, 150 minimum-security re-entry beds were lost. Downeast offered GED certificate programs, rehabilitation programs, training in welding, building trades and clothing manufacture, but more importantly, it offered the opportunity for paid employment in the community.

An inmate who does not go through a re-entry program leaves prison with the shirt on their back, their belongings in a garbage bag and, if they are lucky, a bus ticket to the location of their choice. If they go home, they will become a burden to already financially stressed families. If they have no family, they become the responsibility of whatever community they land in. With a criminal record, no job skills and no education, it is extremely difficult to find employment. Is it any wonder that many turn to the underground community to survive?

NOT ALL WERE SENT TO CHARLESTON

Newspapers around the state reported that Downeast inmates were transported to Mountain View Correctional Facility after being moved out. Some were taken to Mountain View, but there was not enough room for all of Downeast’s census to be housed at the Charleston facility. Some were transported to the Bolduc minimum-security re-entry facility in Warren, while others were taken to Maine State Prison. The state prison, also in Warren, is a medium- and maximum-security facility; it offers no re-entry programs. Since all of the state prison’s medium-security pods were already filled, the new inmates were housed in the maximum-security facility. Already approaching capacity, Maine State Prison has been forced to house medium-security inmates in its Special Management Unit (the solitary confinement wing).

We know that closing Downeast Correctional Facility will have a negative effect on the outcomes of many individual prisoners. It has ensured that many Washington County employers were left without employees and many inmates will be released without resources. The closure has also ensured that many communities will be forced to absorb the outcome. Without adequate re-entry services Maine’s recidivism rates are not likely to improve, and we can expect communities in the state to suffer additional criminal activity.

Gov. LePage has touted the closing of the Downeast Correctional Facility as a $5 million savings for the people of Maine. However, the decision simply transfers the burden for re-entry and rehabilitation to other correctional facilities, and to local communities that are already suffering the consequences of increased recidivism.

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