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Senate OKs Measure to Fund Downeast Correctional Facility for 2 Years

Some new hope surfaced Wednesday for the embattled Downeast Correctional Facility. The Maine Senate voted 30-3 to preserve funding for the Bucks Harbor prison for the next two years. Union officials representing the guards at the facility say 55 layoff notices had been sent out by the governor, who wants to save about $5 million annually by closing the facility.

Given the choice, most Republican lawmakers would likely prefer to be on the same side of policy issues as the Republican governor. But state Sen. Joyce Maker, a Calais Republican, says that when it comes to one of the largest employers in Washington County, she had no other choice but to submit an order to fund the prison for another two years.

“This is very difficult for me, because I never believed that we would have had to go this far,” she says.

Despite unanimous votes from the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to keep Downeast open, LePage chose to close the facility. The administration has also begun the process of commuting the sentences of an undisclosed number of prisoners.

Maker and other opponents say the action is directly related to the closure of the Downeast prison, but the governor’s office has denied that, according to some news media outlets. Instead, LePage says that the commutations are all part of an effort to modernize the corrections system, make it more fiscally responsible and provide new employment opportunities for prisoners.

Maker says the governor should be as concerned about how the prison’s closure will affect unemployment in Washington County.

“It said to provide inmates from throughout Maine State Prison with pathways to employment, but he’s leaving unemployment in Washington County,” she says.

Assistant Senate Republican Leader Andre Cushing of Newport was among the three dissenting votes on the order in the Senate. He says he opposed it because the projected $5 million in savings balances the governor’s budget.

“We should focus our energies on the important things that are here before us now, and that does not mean that the future of the Downeast Correctional Facility is not important to some, but this rides a level of emotionalism that I don’t know is appropriate to the overall decisions that we have to make,” he says.

The Maine House is expected to take up the funding order for the Downeast Correctional Facility on Friday, setting up a potential showdown with the governor over the state budget. Meanwhile, union officials are weighing injunctive action on the issue.