AUGUSTA – A judge has ordered the LePage administration to continue operating the now-empty Downeast Correctional Facility, handing a partial victory to Washington County officials upset with the prison’s sudden closure.

In a 12-page ruling, Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy agreed with the county, union officials and Attorney General Janet Mills that LePage overstepped his constitutional authority when he emptied the Machiasport prison in a secret, pre-dawn operation on February 9th. Murphy ordered the Maine Department of Corrections “to operate DCF” in accordance with state law “until the Legislature acts to repeal (the law) or ceases to fund DCF.”

But Murphy declined to order the LePage administration to return inmates to the minimum-security prison and to reinstate workers, as the unions and Mills’ office had requested. Instead, she wrote that the court “defers to the commissioner as to the operation of the facility,” leaving the question of the prison’s status in doubt.

Members of Washington County’s legislative delegation cheered the ruling.

“I am very relieved that Judge Murphy saw that the governor overstepped his authority when he shut down the facility without legislative approval,” Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said in a statement. “Downeast was a model for how to reintegrate prisoners into society. They were getting confidence and hope to prepare for life outside of prison. There is a lot of damage to undo from the governor’s action.”

Washington County officials filed suit against the administration last month in order to prevent LePage from dismantling a facility that supports dozens of jobs in the area. Unions representing the approximately 40 laid-off workers as well as Mills’ office joined the lawsuit but also charged that the governor – who contends the aging prison is costly, inefficient and no longer needed – violated Maine’s constitutional separation of powers when he removed the remaining inmates and issued layoff notices to staff.

In her ruling, Murphy clearly sided with the plaintiffs in finding that Maine’s law “mandates the existence of a correctional facility in Washington County” until the Legislature repeals the law that actually wrote the prison into statute. Murphy rejected the LePage administration’s argument that the governor – through the Department of Corrections – was only exercising his obligation to manage the prisons and that the prison was effectively slated for closure because the two-year budget passed last July only contains funding through June 30th.

“While the Legislature did pass many of the powers and duties of the (now-abolished) Board of Corrections on to the DOC, the Legislature clearly did not delegate the authority to close facilities to the DOC,” Murphy wrote. “Additionally, while the language cited by the defendant from the biennial budget does suggest that there was a proposal to close the DCF by June 30, 2018, the very fact that the language states ‘proposed closing’ rather than ‘closing’ suggests the Legislature had yet to decide whether to close the facility.”

This story will be updated.

Gov. Paul LePage (AP file photo)

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.