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Judge: Governor Doesn't Have Power To Close Maine Prison

An aerial view of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.

Supporters of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport are wondering what happens next now that a superior court judge has issued a temporary injunction keeping the jail open until June. The judge sided with the Maine Attorney General, labor unions and the Washington County Commission, ruling that the LePage administration lacks the authority to unilaterally close the prison. 

Justice Michaela Murphy Wednesday ordered that the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) remain open until its funding runs out June 30.

"From the commissioner's standpoint, again this at least puts the power back to the people of Maine through its Legislature," said Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner and a party in the action.

Ever since LePage issued layoff notices to 39 DCF workers and transferred the prison's 63 inmates to other facilities, his authority to do so has been called into question. In her ruling, Justice Murphy said that at no time had the Legislature delegated its authority to close the prison. She wrote that while the state Department of Corrections does have the discretion to determine how the prison will operate it, the state must manage and supervise the facility in accordance with the law.

Commissioner Gardner says he's not sure what will happen next.

"Obviously we're going to take a look at this," Gardner said. "We see it as a good thing. It's a tall hill to climb when you mount a lawsuit such as this. But we felt strongly that we were in the right and that the law was on our side and so far, it appears that that's the case. So it's a good day for Washington County and now we've got to figure out what next steps may or may not be."

When questioned by reporters, LePage said he had not seen the judge's decision, but he said the state Department of Corrections would respond.

"I haven't read it yet, because it's in the mail, but my understanding is that she's deferring to the commissioner, so we're going to do what the commissioner says we have to do," LePage said.

In her ruling, Justice Murphy did say that the court would defer to the commissioner on the operation of DCF, and would not issue any order regarding implementation and selection of programs, levels of staffing and payment of personnel.

At AFSCME 93, the union that represents many of the former staff members at the prison, Jim Durkin said the union is already setting up talks with state officials.

"As for the workers, we're already moving to bring our corrections officers back to work immediately," Durkin said. "Judge Murphy has made it abundantly clear that the governor does not have the authority to close DCF, so our position is that the state should immediately bring the affected employees back to work at the pay and benefits level they were receiving prior to the wrongful action of the administration."

Those reinstatements can't come soon enough for Washington County businesses who benefit from the patronage of the state workers, and also employ large numbers of inmates.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said DCF has also been good for the inmates themselves.

"I got letters and emails from people who were learning trades that hadn't known before, who were making money and sending money back home, who were paying their restitution, who were paying their child support,” Mills said. “They had jobs and they had a sense of self-worth that they had never had before. So this facility was not just good for the local businesses and the economy of Washington County, but it was good for the rehabilitation of inmates."

Republican state Sen .Joyce Maker, of Calais,one of the lawmakers leading the charge for DCF, says she has a bill to continue funding the prison into next year.

This story was updated March 15, 2018 at 5:52 p.m.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.