The second shift at Maine Wild Blueberry Co.’s facility in Machias was in full swing early Friday when, without warning, state police troopers came for some of the workers.
The LePage administration had ordered the 60-plus remaining inmates at the Downeast Correctional Facility transferred to other prisons. While police loaded most inmates onto buses at the Machiasport minimum-security prison, a separate team rounded up work-release prisoners on the sanitation crew at the Machias plant owned by Cherryfield Foods, one of Maine’s largest wild blueberry companies.
“The state police showed up before dawn and removed the people from the facility, so we received no prior warning,” said David Bell, general manager of Cherryfield Foods, which had just shy of 20 work-release inmates from the prison on staff. “This week we had to suspend the second shift, so our production is cut in half.”
Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to suddenly transfer prisoners and place more than 30 Downeast Correctional Facility staffers on administrative leave infuriated local elected officials who, until Friday, had successfully resisted the governor’s previous attempts to close the aging Machiasport prison. Now businesses that depended on work-release inmates to supplement their staffing say they have been forced to close or scale back operations as they seek replacement workers.
Lobster Trap Co., which ships Down East crustaceans and other seafood to buyers around the world, lost nine employees – roughly three-quarters of its workforce – when the work-release inmates were transferred Friday. Like Cherryfield Foods, the Lobster Trap Co. seeks to hire local workers first, but uses the work-release program when it cannot fill shifts.
“My Machiasport facility was closed Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and my Addison facility was closed Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said Tom Platt, vice president of operations and managing partner at the Lobster Trap Co. The Machiasport location was open Monday and Addison had someone in the office, but “we are swinging from the fences on this one. … It’s a major impact,” Platt said.
Asked if Lobster Trap Co. had any warning, Platt replied with a simple, “Nope.”
LePage has been pushing for years to close the Washington County prison, which he views as costly and inefficient, but has been repeatedly stymied by the Legislature. In response, the state Department of Corrections steadily reduced the population at the 150-bed prison to 63 inmates as of last week. Local businesses were bracing for the prison to close at the end of June, but lawmakers were working on another bill to provide $5.5 million in funding to keep the prison operating for another fiscal year when LePage abruptly moved the inmates.
Many prisoners participated in the work-release program, which offered them a chance to earn a paycheck – 20 percent of which went to the state – as well as work experience.
NEW WORK-RELEASE FACILITY
The LePage administration says it remains committed to locating a new work-release facility in Washington County, where some employers say they struggle to find workers willing or able to work seasonal and labor-intensive jobs. However, there is no timeline for opening such a facility.
Maine Department of Labor representatives were in Washington County on Monday discussing the issue with affected employers.
“We have scheduled meetings today with businesses that participated in the work-release program to assess their immediate needs, and to do what we can from a labor perspective in the short term and beyond,” said department spokeswoman Laura Hudson. “We will also work with the Department of Corrections and those businesses to ensure that workers who were likely candidates to be hired post-release do not lose those opportunities.”
However, emotions remained raw Monday in Washington County. The prison employed roughly 40 people – down from double that number a few years ago – in a rural area of Maine where steady, good-paying jobs are increasingly scarce.
And locals were still furious that the unannounced prisoner transfer took place during the pre-dawn hours Friday with armed state police troopers.
Chris Gardner, a former close LePage ally who serves as chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said guards didn’t carry firearms at the minimum-security prison. Yet the state police and the guards brought in from other facilities to secure the empty prison carried guns. Meanwhile, the guards who did work at the facility are on paid administrative leave, awaiting layoffs effective March 3.
Last week, Gardner described the manner in which the prison was closed – despite the Legislature’s clear votes to keep it open – as “vindictive.” And Monday, Gardner said the armed guards told him whoever is carrying out the closure plan has “horrible instincts.”
“And if not that, some would say this is just pouring salt into an open wound,” Gardner said.
LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz downplayed reports circulating on social media of multiple armed guards.
“Given that Friday was an emotional day and tensions were running high, a decision was made to have the facility guarded (by only one armed guard) to maintain security through today,” Rabinowitz said in a prepared statement. “There is an administrative team that worked over the weekend and will continue through the end of the week to take a final inventory of the equipment and property as of the closure. These are routine precautions and tasks that need to be done whenever changes are made involving state facilities and property.”
Meanwhile, even some business owners not immediately affected by the loss of the work-release program were lamenting the prison’s closure.
BIG IMPACT ON WASHINGTON COUNTY
Whitney Wreaths was the first company to begin partnering with the prison on the work-release program nearly a decade ago and typically hires about 15 people during the busy wreath-making season. Owner David Whitney said he hopes the work-release issue will be sorted out before the busy season ramps up later this year. He said losing 39 prison staff positions in rural Washington County is akin to 600 jobs disappearing in Cumberland County.
Washington County’s unemployment rate of 4.1 percent is the second-highest in Maine, which has overall unemployment of 2.5 percent, according to Maine Department of Labor statistics for December.
Whitney personally knows many of those prison workers, and worries the closure will accelerate outmigration from Washington County.
“There are a lot of good things going on here, and it is the result of civic pride,” Whitney said. “But the loss of those jobs is tremendous. It can’t be overstated.”
Gov. Paul LePage has been pushing for years to close the Downeast Correctional Facility, which he views as costly and inefficient, but has been repeatedly stymied by the Legislature. (PPH/Machiasport.org photo)