AUGUSTA — The LePage administration likely will propose keeping the Downeast Correctional Facility open for an additional nine months in response to push back on the governor’s plans to shutter the Washington County prison in June.

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the House minority leader, said Thursday that Gov. Paul LePage will offer to extend the temporary lifeline to the low-security, Machiasport prison as part of a budget “change package” that lawmakers will begin discussing Friday.

“The nine months is to allow a period of conversation about what are the best options” for the aging facility, said Fredette, R-Newport.

LePage had zeroed out funding for the Downeast Correctional Facility in his $6.8 billion budget proposal, but jump-started the closure process last week after lawmakers signaled they would continue funding the prison.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, confirmed Thursday evening that the administration is considering a nine-month extension. And while the budget “change package” released Thursday evening did not alter LePage’s earlier language eliminating all funding for Downeast Correctional, Bennett said the administration may offer an amendment to lawmakers on Friday that would keep the prison open temporarily.

Members of Washington County’s legislative delegation welcomed the news even as they continued to pursue a two-year funding bill now working its way through the Legislature.

“Nine months is better than what we had yesterday, but I am really hoping we get two years,” said Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias.

“Nine months is not enough but it gives us a reprieve to work together to get this worked out,” said Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais.

Jim Mackie, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, the union that represents state correctional workers, said the nine-month reprieve did little to allay the broader concern of what the state plans to do in the long term.

“The underlying question is, then what?” Mackie said. “If the legislature is out of session is (the governor) then going to try to close it?”

Mackie said he still will push for the construction of a new pre-release center in Washington County. Money to build the facility was approved through a roughly $150 million bond in April 2016 that also authorized the state to pay for an expansion or repairs at the Windham prison.

Corrections officials told legislators in a written response to questions that the department would first focus on the Windham project, and that once it begins, shift their attention to Washington County.

The LePage administration announced last week that it planned to close the Machiasport prison on June 10 despite a legislative committee’s vote to keep the facility open.

Pink slips were delivered 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.

The administration then announced this week that an unspecified number of “lower-risk offenders” would receive “conditional commutations” as part of an effort to “modernize and improve programs and facilities” while helping inmates re-enter the workforce. But the statement made no mention of Downeast Correctional Facility or how many inmates there would have their sentences commuted.

The first confirmation that the two efforts are in fact linked came Thursday, in the written responses to questions posed to corrections officials from legislators on the appropriations committee.

The responses indicate that Downeast’s prisoners were to be either housed in other state prisons or released by the conditional commutations, which mirror traditional probation conditions.

The committee’s questions did not request a precise count of the planned commutations, and corrections staff did not provide one, but said that as of Tuesday, no prisoners had been released.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 30-3 in support of a resolution directing the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to fund Downeast Correctional for two years. The House unanimously endorsed the resolution on Thursday without debate.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

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