MACHIASPORT — State Rep. Will Tuell, R-Machias, isn’t optimistic about reopening the shuttered Downeast Correctional Facility.

“This is it. This is the final act in the play,” he said last week after learning the Maine Department of Corrections isn’t planning to reopen the prison and instead plans to create a pre-release program somewhere in Machias that will house 50 inmates and employ 15 people.

“It really is a lot less than what we were looking for or expecting,” Tuell said.

In March 2018, then-Gov. Paul LePage abruptly closed the prison, moving about 65 inmates to other locations and laying off 36 employees.

The prison had long been the target of state officials hoping to consolidate the prison system.

Reopening the facility is just too expensive, said corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty. Initial estimates came in at $17 million to renovate and reopen the prison. Officials, including Washington County legislators, whittled that down to $10 million to $10.5 million through a proposal that would open only one of three 50-man dorms along with a few support buildings.

It may be cheaper to locate a pre-release facility somewhere else, though a firm decision on whether or not to use part of the existing prison has not been made, Liberty said.

Tuell opposes the idea of a pre-release facility.

Liberty said a halfway house is for those who have already been released and are trying to transition back into society. Pre-release is where  inmates spend the last two years of their sentences, learning job and other skills necessary for transitioning back to civilian life.

Tuell said the former prison’s work release program achieved much the same thing. Participating inmates were paid the same as their co-workers, allowing them to pay the jail for room and board and, if necessary, make restitution. Many kept their jobs after release.

“Some worked (at the same places) after they got out of prison,” Tuell said. “There were some who started their own businesses.”

Tuell said he is also concerned about former prison employees. Although a handful of the 36 who were laid off took early retirement, the state’s current proposal would still leave almost half of the rest unemployed, basically “pitting one worker against another” for the open positions, he said.

In addition, displaced workers have a two-year call-back window, meaning after March 2020, they lose seniority, which affects their pay and benefits.

Liberty said the state is also concerned about the former employees but must consider the whole picture. Discussions among legislators, the department and the governor are ongoing.

Tuell said the prison has been an important part of Washington County since 1985, when it was established at a former Air Force radar facility. At its peak, the prison employed as many as 70 people.

“We had a whole generation of people that owe their livelihood to this prison,” Tuell said, adding that even those who have retired still feel a connection to it. “That’s why I’m going to keep on going with it.”


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