LePage oversteps with attempt to shut down Downeast prison says judge

 By Ramona du Houx

“I am very relieved that Judge Murphy saw that the governor overstepped his authority when he shut down the facility without legislative approval,” said Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais. “Downeast was a model for how to reintegrate prisoners into society. They were getting confidence and hope to prepare for life outside of prison. There is a lot of damage to undo from the governor’s action.”

Perry was talking about the temporary injunction that was granted by Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy against Governor LePage’s attempt to close the Downeast Correctional Facility (DFC) in Machiasport, Washington County, Maine. When the facility shut its doors by order of LePage the community was shocked. The action was done in the night without any consultation with local authorities.

Ann Grange of Northfield, an educator at DCF for 19 years, said "The illegal closure of Downeast Correctional Facility has upended my life. It forced me to apply for retirement even though I want to keep working and need to keep working. My health insurance expired yesterday and I have eye surgery scheduled for today (March 16th). My coworkers and I don’t know how we’re going to make ends meet. We want to get back to work serving the people of Maine."

“The governor was wrong to close the facility, especially in the underhanded way he did it, and I am glad the judge recognized that,” said Rep. Robert Alley, D-Beals. “Lots of local businesses counted on Downeast employees, but more than that, local businesses and other organizations counted on the prisoners and the work they did in the community.”

"While it is unfortunate that court action and an injunction were necessary, this Office stands ready to assist the Department of Corrections, the unions, the workers and the Legislature in complying with the injunction and carrying out the will of the court and the statutory mandate. We have argued that the action of the administration in closing the facility violated the separation of powers provision of our state constitution, and the Court agreed.

"The ruling is important not only for the Downeast Correctional Facility but for the system of checks and balances that is so critical to our democracy," said Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

"This would be an appropriate time for the executive branch and members of the legislative branch to determine both the short term and the long term future of the Downeast Correctional Facility - an institution which is so important to the people of Washington County, to the hard working correctional staff, to the many local businesses served by inmate labor, including Wreaths Across America, and to the inmates themselves who have found on-the-job training, financial security and self-worth at this facility and who have paid their child support and restitution obligations with their earnings. The benefit of this minimum security facility to this very supportive community and to the state as a whole should not be underestimated."

Justice Murphy’s ruling in part noted that: “Given the statutory language requiring the establishment of DCF in Washington County, the Legislature's decision not to continue to delegate the authority to close facilities to the DOC, and the Legislature's language in the biennial budget, the Court finds that the Legislature's intent was to retain the authority to decide which facilities should remain operational and which facilities should close. While it is within the Commissioner's discretion to determine how to operate the DCF program, only the Legislature has the authority to decide not to fund DCF and rescind the requirements set out in 34-A M.R.S. § 3901.”

Legislation to fund Downeast Correctional Facility for an additional year is still pending in the House of Representatives after an initial vote of approval.

LD 1704 "An Act To Fund the Downeast Correctional Facility" sponsored by Representative William Tuell, R-East Machias, was passed in the House by a vote of87 to 59 and in the Senate by a vote of 31 to 3.

The bill awaits final enactment in both chambers and action by Governor LePage.