Gov. Paul LePage granted 17 prisoners early release Friday as part of a conditional commutation effort that the Department of Corrections has said is linked to his attempt to close a minimum-security prison in Machiasport.

A statement LePage’s office issued Friday did not provide any information about which prisoners will be set free, the timetable for their release, their crimes, or how much time is left on their sentences. Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick has declined to comment on any aspect of the prisoner release plan since May 19, and he did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment Friday.

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 16 inmates were moved from Maine Correctional Center in Windham to another facility in the state where they are likely to be released out of sight of the media.

Although LePage’s statement did not link the commutations with the announced closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, the corrections department, in written responses to legislators’ questions this week, acknowledged that officials would release inmates to make room at other state facilities for the people currently housed at Downeast.

About 65 general population beds are open statewide, according to the department’s written response. The state now¬†houses about¬†2,300 inmates.

The Portland Press Herald has filed a Freedom of Access Act request with the governor’s office and Department of Corrections for details on the commutation process, who the prisoners are, and what agencies, if any, were involved in making the commutation decisions.

In a statement Friday afternoon, LePage characterized the commutations as a fiscally responsible move that will help low-risk offenders transition into jobs, calling them a way to “build our workforce and fill positions that have been sitting vacant.”

The state Department of Labor will work with the released prisoners to find employment, the statement said, but 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.

Much like probation, the commutations come with conditions. Prisoners who are released by the governor will be supervised as if they are on probation, and will be expected to not engage in criminal conduct, and to obey a strict curfew and other standard conditions.

The Downeast Correctional Facility is an aging minimum-security prison built to accommodate about 150 inmates. It now 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.

On May 19, LePage ordered the prison to close on June 10 and sent layoff notices to 55 of the facility’s employees, but this week his office appeared to back off that timetable, giving the prison a nine-month reprieve by submitting a revised budget plan that would keep Downeast running through March 2018.

On Friday, however, Mackie said he learned that layoffs at Downeast would be delayed only until August.

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.

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 Thursday without debate. It next goes to the appropriations committee for a vote.

It remains unclear whether LePage has the authority to close the prison if the Legislature votes to fund it.

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

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