AUGUSTA — Senate President Kevin Raye and other members of the Down East delegation won a victory Friday when the state’s streamlining commission rejected a proposal to close a state-run prison in Washington County.

The closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor would have meant the loss of 68 jobs, 63 of which are filled. Raye, a Republican, and the five other members of the Washington County delegation lobbied commission members with letters from local businesses and groups, including a letter from the Daughters of the American Revolution society in Machias.

The groups expressed concern about the closure of one of the largest full-time employers in the county. Businesses that sell food and gas to the prison employees would be hurt, and towns and local organizations would suffer because the prisoners themselves often completed community projects in the area, they wrote.

Commission members also received a petition signed by 855 people in opposition to the closure and dozens of photos of local projects completed by prisoners from the facility. And correctional officers in their blue uniforms wearing stickers that said “jobs” sat in the front row of the Appropriations Committee room as the commission discussed the proposal.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the prison is outdated and has no sprinkler system. As he worked to meet a requirement to propose $1.26 million in cuts to his department, he decided to “do business a different way.”

With all the budget cuts of the past several years at the state level, he said the easy decisions about where to save money have already been made. Closing the prison would save $5.6 million, but costs associated with upgrading other prisons to accommodate the prisoners lowers the total savings to about $4 million. There are 149 prisoners at the prison.

“I think this is a sound proposal for the right reasons,” he said. “To me, this is the best plan for the taxpayers.”

Ponte got strong, bipartisan push back from nearly all commission members. The commission, which includes current and former legislators and business leaders, is required to come up with at least $25 million in savings to the state budget by December. They want Ponte to come back with a new range of proposals — likely in the areas of lowering prescription drug costs and money spent on overtime — because they don’t see any way of getting the prison closure through the Legislature.

Former House Republican Leader Joe Bruno said Ponte didn’t lay the political groundwork necessary to get the change through the Legislature.

“You need someone to hug you and tell you how wonderful you are and (then say) we need to close this facility,” he said.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said the administration should consider fixing up and expanding the prison, not closing it, particularly because it is in a part of the state where it’s hard to find a job.

After the meeting, Raye said the facility has been a well run part of the state’s overall corrections system.

“I believe the commissioner exaggerated the conditions in terms of safety in the facility,” he said. “We have public schools that don’t have sprinklers.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]


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