AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to support continued funding for the Downeast Correctional Facility despite Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to close the Washington County prison and commute some inmate sentences.

The bipartisan 30-3 vote aimed to send a clear message to LePage that lawmakers will fight his plan calling for closing the 150-bed, low-security prison and releasing an unknown number of inmates into the community.

The resolution directs the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to pass a bill that funds the Downeast Correctional Facility for the next two fiscal years.

“This is one of those moments, Mr. President, when I think we need to stand up and assert our authority as the Legislature,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the Appropriations Committee.

The Maine House is expected to take up the resolution, which is being spearheaded by the Washington County delegation, during a floor session Thursday.

The Senate vote is the latest twist in an unusual debate involving jobs, politics, public safety and the perennial budgetary tensions between the executive and legislative branches.

The LePage administration surprised Washington County officials last Friday by announcing that Downeast Correctional would close June 10 despite a legislative committee’s vote to keep the Machiasport facility open. Pink slips were also sent to 55 staff members at Downeast Correctional, and rumors circulated that as many as 75 prisoners would be released early after receiving commutations from the governor.

Members of Washington County’s legislative delegation angrily accused LePage of pursuing a policy that would eliminate jobs in a region struggling with high unemployment and allowing convicted felons to “walk free because there’s no room for them in any other facility.”

After days of speculation about the fate of the inmates, the LePage administration on Tuesday announced that an unspecified number of “lower-risk offenders” would receive “conditional commutations.” The department described the commutations as steps to “modernize and improve programs and facilities” while offering the inmates a chance to re-enter the workforce.

But the statement made no mention of Downeast Correctional Facility or how many inmates there would have their sentences commuted.

On Wednesday, Washington County state Sen. Joyce Maker suggested that releasing prisoners would “not only destroy our county but destroy the state of Maine.” Maker, R-Calais, also questioned why the governor wants to create “pathways to employment” for inmates even as he causes more unemployment in her county.

Sen. Bill Diamond, a Democrat whose district includes the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, noted that the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to support keeping the Machiasport prison open. Diamond also said the Department of Corrections’ own statements suggest there was not enough capacity within the prison system to handle up to 100 prisoners at other facilities.

“If we are going to be just releasing these inmates and sending them out into the community, I think that raises a great deal of concern among all of the communities that might be receiving these people,” Diamond said. “Releasing somebody is a serious matter, as opposed to this motivation (that) seems to be a budgetary matter.”

Opened in 1985, Downeast Correctional is a low-security facility that often serves as a last stop for offenders before they are released. Inmates can participate in work-release programs, often filling seasonal jobs in the wreath-making and blueberry industries.

The facility has been proposed for elimination numerous times in recent years – both by LePage and his predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci – but has survived, thanks in part to the facility’s economic importance to the local community. LePage zeroed-out the facility’s funding in his two-year, $6.8 billion budget proposal released in January, but the unanimous Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee recommendation to keep the facility open would likely have strong sway with legislative budget writers.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, declined to comment on the Senate vote. Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick also declined to comment Wednesday.

It is unclear what impact, if any, legislative funding for the prison will have on the governor’s decision.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda M. Pistner wrote in April in a non-binding letter to lawmakers that the Maine Constitution probably prohibits LePage from unilaterally eliminating the prison because it was created in statute and funded by the Legislature. Likewise, the facility is a “discrete program” within the budget, so LePage cannot eliminate it, Pistner wrote.

But that doesn’t mean the governor has to place any inmates there, according to at least one lawmaker.

Sen. James Hamper, an Oxford Republican who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, said last week that although the prison is written into statute, the governor probably can still empty it. And while he understands the “human side” of what closing the facility will mean to Washington County, Hamper has toured all of the state’s prisons and said he also sees the reasons behind the governor’s decision.

“It’s time – the facility, it’s location . . . it’s time,” said Hamper, who cast one of the three votes against Maker’s resolution to continue funding the prison.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Department of Corrections responded to a detailed list of questions submitted by the Portland Press Herald. Those questions include which prisoners would soon be released, the selection criteria, where they will be released and whether the state or probation officials are taking any special measures to ensure that those released do not re-offend. There also was no further clarity on any role by the state Department of Labor to help the released prisoners obtain jobs.

Maker said she was awaiting answers to questions on the potential prisoner releases, and a response to a written request to meet with the governor.

Maker said that even if her resolution to fund the prison for another two years is approved by both the full House and the Appropriations Committee, the governor could still choose not to house inmates at the facility.

“It would be absolutely silly,” Maker said. “But so is what’s happening now, releasing prisoners. It’s unbelievable to the whole state of Maine.”

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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