Gov. Paul LePage announced Tuesday that he plans to commute the sentences of an unspecified number of prisoners in Maine and arrange for their early release.

The announcement came four days after the LePage administration revealed its plan to close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, a 150-bed minimum-security prison. Layoff notices were sent Friday to 55 of the facility’s employees, telling them their jobs would be terminated in a few weeks.

Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick, in a brief phone interview Tuesday, refused to say how many prisoners would be released early, from which facilities or how the department would determine which prisoners would be considered for early release, repeatedly referring a reporter to a statement by the governor.

“I can promise you (the statement) will answer any and all questions,” Fitzpatrick said.

He did not respond to further questions about whether the early releases are tied to the closure of Downeast, which houses about 100 low-security inmates, including some sex offenders, who have been convicted of a variety of major felonies and are nearing the end of their sentences.

In the statement released Tuesday afternoon, LePage framed the commutations as a fiscally responsible move that will help low-risk offenders transition into jobs.

The state Department of Labor will work with the released prisoners to find employment, LePage’s office said, but the statement offered no details on what that assistance would consist of, and whether this process would differ from current practices when a prisoner is released on schedule.

“These conditional commutations are a part of a systemwide approach to a fiscally responsible Corrections Department that is committed to transitioning low-risk offenders into jobs and self-sufficiency,” LePage said in the statement. “As these individuals reintegrate into the community, they will help build our workforce and fill positions that have been sitting vacant. The departments of Corrections and Labor will work with offenders and employers to ensure these individuals are provided with the information, support and resources to put them on a path to succeed.”

The governor’s office did not respond to messages requesting comment.

‘NEVER SEEN ANYTHING SO … INSANE’

Jim Mackie, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, the union that represents the state’s correctional workers, said he has no doubt the commutations are a direct result of Downeast’s closure.

Mackie said there are currently only about 25 open beds systemwide, forcing the department to scramble to release inmates to make room for the prisoners coming from Downeast.

He said he has heard that as many as 20 prisoners from the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren will be released, along with as many as eight from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. An unknown number also could be released from Downeast, Mackie said.

“We’re putting inmates on the street so we can close a prison,” he said. “I just can’t get my head around that logic. I have never seen anything so friggin’ insane in my whole life.”

He added later, “Willie Horton is all I can keep thinking about,” referring to a Massachusetts prisoner who was convicted of a 1974 murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Horton was released in 1986 as part of a weekend furlough program and fled the state.

Less than a year later, Horton raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé in Maryland. His case became a line of attack by then-Republican candidate George H.W. Bush in his 1988 presidential race against former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who had defended the furlough program while governor.

Mackie also said the plan to swiftly move prisoners out of Downeast and into other facilities before the Legislature has time to react increases the likelihood that the closure will remain permanent.

News of the commutations spread Tuesday afternoon when staff from the Probation and Corrections departments visited at least three prisons in the state, Mackie said. He said the teams of probation workers at the Downeast, Windham and Bolduc facilities are reviewing inmate files and working to determine who could be released the soonest.

“They’re moving as fast as their feet can move to get those beds open and get those people out on the street,” he said.

QUESTIONS FROM LEGISLATORS

The closure of the Downeast facility, scheduled for June 10, means about 55 correctional officers and other employees will be laid off.

The Machiasport prison, opened in 1985, functions as a last stop for offenders before they are released, and offers work-release programs and other opportunities to help inmates reintegrate into society.

Representatives from the area say the work-release programs, especially in the seasonal wreath-making and blueberry industries, are vital parts of Washington County’s economy, which has suffered considerably in recent years.

The planned closure is in line with LePage’s budget proposal, which eliminated funding for the Downeast facility. But legislators on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had voted unanimously to reinstate the funding and keep the prison open.

Their recommendation was forwarded to the Appropriations Committee, which is working to formulate the state budget. On Monday, the Appropriations Committee requested more information on the decision to close the prison.

Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said in a written statement that she was disappointed by LePage’s decision, and posed questions that so far remain unanswered by the administration.

“The Legislature has been left completely in the dark as far as what’s going on, leaving us to rely on information that has slowly come in from outside sources,” Maker said in the statement. “This is no way to conduct business, especially when the stakes are so high for so many.”

Maker wants to know how many prisoners will be released and what parameters are being used to select them, whether the Probation Department has enough officers to handle the influx, whether the released prisoners’ names will be made public, whether attorneys and victims have been notified, and whether the commutations are a one-time fix, or will be ongoing.

“I am disappointed to say that these prisoners are being released because the governor made this major decision unilaterally,” she said. “It isn’t fair to the victims, it isn’t fair to the hard-working employees of the Downeast Correctional Facility and it plain isn’t the right thing to do. I am deeply concerned with the message this conveys.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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