The future of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport is now at the center of a political showdown at the State House.
The closure of the minimum security prison would mean more than the loss of state jobs Down East, it would also unravel a system that has supplied the region with labor from prison work release programs and from former inmates who decided to stay in Washington County to rebuild their lives.
It’s late in the afternoon at Pat’s Pizza in Machias, where manager Nate Burke is making a routine inspection of an employee’s work station. That employee is Raphael Bradley, who spent more than 30 years behind bars before arriving at the Downeast Correctional Facility and took part in a work release program that led to a full-time job at Pat’s Pizza.
Bradley says there are lots of former DCF prisoners who are rebuilding their lives Down East.
“One friend just got engaged, he works on a boat, has been for two or three years now, having a baby. Another friend of mine just bought a garage and started his own shop who was in there,” he says. “Everybody I know who was there — only one of them has gone back.”
According to a 2017 New England Public Policy Center report, Maine has the highest recidivism rate in New England, with 56 percent of those released from the criminal justice system returning within three years. Machias area employers say DCF’s recidivism rate is less than half the state average.
The minimum security prison once housed about 150 inmates, an overwhelming majority of whom participated in community improvement projects or paid work release programs at a variety of local businesses. In recent years, Bradley says more and more prisoners have been embraced by the community around the Machias area.
“It’s made up of a lot of hard-partying fishermen and things like that who have gotten in trouble themselves,” he says. “So they don’t really hold anything against anybody, and everybody around here is pretty much, ‘Oh, you’ve been to jail, so what? So have I.’“
For employers like Burke, DCF has bolstered a local labor pool that is also affected by the seasonal demands of the blueberry harvests, commercial fishing and wreath-making.
“This is the poorest county in the state, and so obviously, there’s a lot of people who are unemployed, and there’s some reasons for that, one way or another, but by going through these different programs such as down at DCF, you know you’re going to have an employee that’s going to show up to work and do the job and do the job they’re supposed to do,” he says.
This whole system could change if Gov. Paul LePage is successful in blocking a bipartisan effort in Augusta to approve $5.5 million in annual funding to keep DCF open for another year. LePage and other governors before him have viewed the prison as inefficient and prohibitively expensive to maintain.
The state Department of Corrections issued layoff notices to staff at the prison and transferred its inmate population to other facilities earlier this month. For some who are about to finish their stay at the prison, there is still promise here in Washington County.
“The future is what I make of it — I mean this is the first time I’ve ever been in trouble in my life,” says Eric Joseph Finnemore, currently under house arrest as he finishes his last several weeks as a DCF prisoner.
Finnemore is working for a Machias-area landscaping company and is friendly with former prisoners who landed work release jobs at lobster trap companies, blueberry factories and other businesses and are now earning a living.
“People are making some serious money there, this has been nothing but a great opportunity for the inmates,” he says. “I’ve seen inmates leave with $30,000 on their books who worked for a year and half and are going home with $30,000 — that’s something to be proud of. I mean it’s a bad experience in a person’s life and creating positive and to take that away, it’s going to hurt.”
The governor’s determination to close DCF is a serious challenge to those who are trying to protect the facility, including Republican Rep. Will Tuell of Machiasport, who sponsored a bill to retain funding for the prison. After succeeding in the Senate, the measure failed to attract the two-thirds support in the House needed to override a likely veto from LePage.
Tuell insists the fight is not over.
“There’s a lot of things up in the air at this point, so some would say we’re licking our wounds and looking at all our options and going from there, but we’re certainly not going to totally throw in the towel,” he says.
Tuell says he will redouble his efforts to try and convince enough Republicans in the House to support DCF funding, even though he knows he faces an uphill fight.