AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Corrections will reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility “with minimal staff and a minimal number of inmates” by week’s end in response to a court order, the LePage administration announced Monday.
Gov. Paul LePage said he met with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick on Monday morning to discuss the issue, less than a week after a Superior Court judge ruled that the administration overstepped its authorityby closing the Washington County prison without legislative approval.
“He has informed me that he will comply with the court’s order and will do so in the most fiscally responsible manner by the end of the week,” LePage said in a statement.
The statement from the governor’s office said the department “will operate the facility with minimal staffing and a minimal number of inmates, and continue preparations to close the facility when the appropriation expires” on June 30. LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz declined to provide specifics about how many prison staff and inmates will be brought back to the Machiasport facility.
But an attorney for unionized prison workers called LePage’s plan “a completely unacceptable response” five days after the court order and said he will file a motion Tuesday to hold Fitzpatrick in contempt of court.
“It’s like (LePage) is saying, ‘I’m going to do as little as possible and dare the court to enforce it,’ ” said David Webbert, whose law firm, Johnson, Webbert & Young, represented unions in the court case. “They should have put employees back on pay within a day of the order. He is not telling us what he is going to do, so that is not in compliance with the court order.”
On March 14, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy concluded that the LePage administration exceeded its legal authority when it effectively closed the prison last month by transferring all inmates and laying off nearly 40 prison staff members. The prison’s existence is written into statute, and lawmakers provided funding for the 150-bed facility through the fiscal year that ends June 30.
But while Murphy ordered the department to continue operating the prison, she deferred to Fitzpatrick on how to carry out that mandate.
“The court has concluded that it has the authority to enforce the statute, including to mandate the continued operation of DCF in accordance with (state law),” Murphy wrote in her ruling. “However, the details of everyday operation of DCF have been statutorily delegated to the commissioner by the Legislature. Moreover, courts are not well situated to make determinations concerning the details of everyday operation of the DCF and to do so could also violate the separation of powers.”
Last week, Webbert’s firm demanded that the LePage administration reopen the prison or provide laid-off employees with back pay based on the judge’s ruling.
Rabinowitz said staff will be recalled based on seniority and the terms of the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the administration and the workers’ union. Likewise, Fitzpatrick and Corrections Department staff will consider a number of factors – potentially including the needs of local businesses that relied on work-release inmates for staffing – when deciding which inmates to send back to Machiasport.
“The intent here is to comply as soon as possible” with the court order, Rabinowitz said.
The governor has been attempting for years to close a prison he views as inefficient and increasingly unnecessary. Washington County officials have fiercely protected the prison, which provides steady and good-paying jobs in an economically troubled area of the state. Additionally, several Down East businesses – including wreath-makers, blueberry operations and lobster dealers – have come to rely on the prison’s work-release program for staffing difficult-to-fill positions.
Washington County officials filed suit against the LePage administration to prevent it from dismantling the prison after prisoners were transferred to other facilities during a controversial pre-dawn operation. The Maine State Employees Association SEIU Local 1989 union as well as Maine Attorney General Janet Mills joined the lawsuit against LePage, arguing the governor violated the state constitution by closing a prison funded by the Legislature and caused “irreparable harm” to workers and the local community in the process.