Imagine for a minute that you are working a midnight shift at a state prison in the poorest county in your state. It is a job few people want or can even do, but you and your 50 co-workers and their families depend on it to keep food on the table and a roof over your head.

Then, under the cover of darkness and without notice, buses, state police and a SWAT team show up at 4:30 a.m., inform you and the entire staff that you no longer have a job and haul off the prison’s 63 inmates to another lockup, 122 miles away in Charleston.

This is what played out in the lives of stunned workers last Friday morning at the minimum-security Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. Neither the prison’s director; nor legislators and other Washington County elected officials were notified in advance of this decision by Maine’s controversial and divisive governor, Paul LePage.

Washington County, which includes Machiasport, is the poorest county in the state. It is a place of incredible natural beauty, and home to about 30,000 people. But beauty doesn’t pay the bills, feed families or keep them warm during those long, harsh eastern Maine winters.

Most jobs there are seasonal self-employment. These people are commercial fishermen — lobsters, crabs, scallops, clams, quahogs and such — or work the commercial low-bush Maine wild blueberry harvest in late summer. In November, they “tip” fir trees and make Christmas wreaths during “wreathing” season.

Good, steady hourly jobs with health benefits are few and far between. It is a hard life, with poverty rates way above the national average. About one in every three children in the county lives in poverty.

So when the state’s chief executive, without warning, throws 51 people out of work in the dead of winter in Washington County, it is a huge deal. The likelihood that these workers can quickly find another job in the county is pretty much zero. Oh, they will get a paycheck for a couple of weeks, but they will be formally laid off March 3.

LePage has a track record of treating his office like a dictatorship, acting without legislative approval on matters like the prison’s closing. The governor has had the Downeast Correctional Facility in his sights for years, claiming its cost is a budget-breaker. Still, lawmakers earlier had approved funding the prison through June and were working on a long-term plan to improve facilities there.

On the morning when Le-Page’s decision to clear the prison was carried out, one civilian employee, a woman, was in the dining hall preparing food when a state trooper carrying a rifle and wearing a protective vest came in and ordered her to get out. Other workers were similarly relieved of their duties on the spot. Even the day-shift workers had no clue until they drove in for work and were met by state police telling them they no longer had a job and turning them back.

The governor has no legal authority to shut down a prison, but does have the authority to transfer inmates. So, while only the Legislature can shutter a prison, LePage has effectively “closed” the Downeast Correctional Facility, since there is no one left there.

The state obtained the property, a former radar site, from the Air Force in September 1984. The first inmates began arriving in June 1985. While many locals at first had safety concerns about it, the prison soon proved invaluable. Many of the inmates performed jobs in the area. They built a boat ramp at no cost for the town of Machias, assisted in other projects around the county, helped firefighters clean up after fires and more. While it cost money to have the prison, the inmates there also saved communities money on projects or jobs.

A LePage spokesman claims the governor could not broadcast his plans because of security concerns: You don’t announce when and to where you are moving prisoners. I get that, but you still tell administrators so they and their staff can prepare.

My heart aches for these families, who now have to worry about how they will make their house, rent and car payments, buy food or oil to heat their homes or pay for medical care and prescriptions, since their health benefits also end with their jobs. This needs to be a national story. It is a true tragedy in a county whose people cannot afford it.

Paul Sylvain is a former Maine resident who covered Washington County for the Bangor Daily News, the Machias Valley News Observer and the County Wide Newspaper. He now lives in Summerville, South Carolina, and can be contacted at: [email protected]


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