AUGUSTA — The LePage administration said Wednesday it hopes to open a small pre-release work center in Washington County later this year, offsetting but not replacing the prison beds and staff positions lost with the closure of Downeast Correctional Facility.

Washington County business and government leaders voiced skepticism about the hypothetical facility’s size while continuing to question Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to shutter Downeast Correctional’s work-release program.

“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but I am very pessimistic that the design that I’ve heard here today will be successful,” Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said.

In the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 9, the LePage administration loaded the 60-plus remaining inmates of the Machiasport prison onto buses for transfer to other facilities while notifying prison staff of pending layoffs. While the timing was unexpected, the governor has been attempting for years to close the minimum-security prison that he views as outdated, inefficient and increasingly unnecessary. Washington County officials responded by filing suit against the LePage administration, even as lawmakers debate two bills connected to the issue.

Legislators authorized funding for a new pre-release facility in Washington County in 2016 but it has yet to be built.

On Wednesday, LePage senior policy adviser Aaron Chadbourne said the Maine Department of Corrections is exploring potential sites in Washington County for a “lean, cost-effective” pre-release center capable of housing 15 to 20 inmates. Chadbourne said the administration could have a facility operating by summer – and could explore future “satellite” locations near businesses – if lawmakers move quickly to approve property acquisition.

But first, the administration wants lawmakers to remove the statutory authorization of Downeast Correctional Facility – thereby eliminating any chance that the Legislature could fund it again – and to sell the Machiasport property.

“We are talking about renovating an existing facility to have at least 20 beds that would accommodate training, employer partnerships and work-release,” Chadbourne told lawmakers reviewing a bill to authorize a pre-release facility in Washington County. “That is the rough outline of what we are planning to do. It’s something that’s been talked about for years.”

The proposal received a chilly reception, however, from a group that made the trip from Washington County to testify in support of the bill, L.D. 1841.

Cherryfield Foods had been reduced to a single shift per day at its Maine Wild Blueberry processing plant since Feb. 9 when they lost access to roughly 20 work-release participants from Downeast Correctional. News of the incident likely helped draw attention to the company’s job openings, resulting in 50 applications. But David Bell with Cherryfield Foods said several applicants came to interviews obviously under the influence of marijuana, and four of the 20 new hires lasted less than two days.

“I have a little trouble understanding how a 20-person program would work because I am worried about two things: about critical mass to keep the cost of the program down, but also critical mass of the number of employees,” Bell told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “If you have two or four work-release inmates that don’t work out, that is 10 or 20 percent of inmates in your program.”

Many inmates worked at local businesses as part of the prison’s work-release program, offering them a chance to save money or pay restitution while also gaining work experience. Although the administration says the prison was no longer cost-efficient, facility supporters say the per-inmate costs were artificially inflated because less than half of the beds were filled as the governor reduced the population. They also described the work-release program as a model for reducing the number of people who end up back in jail after being released.

The owner of the wreath-making company Whitney Wreath, David Whitney, said the work-release program has been “very, very valuable” in finding seasonal workers when they can’t find enough local labor. But Whitney wasn’t sure about the prospect of his company taking on even more responsibility to house and manage work-release participants under the LePage proposal for satellite facilities located close to businesses.

“The idea of having a dormitory on my campus – and that I manage those workers 24 hours a day – concerns me,” Whitney said.

Lawmakers also pressed Chadbourne on what the administration has done to help the more than 30 Downeast Correctional Facility staffers who will lose their jobs effective March 3 and businesses affected by the loss of work-release inmates.

“The administration takes no pleasure in the fact that there are people out of work and that there are people whose lives have been disrupted,” Chadbourne said. “That being said, there are many services that this administration and state government do traditionally provide when that occurs anywhere in our state. And we have made a concerted effort through the Department of Labor and through other resources of the state to make sure that those needs are attended to.”

The Maine Department of Labor has sent crews to Washington County to work with laid off prison employees and to speak with affected businesses. But several speakers on Wednesday portrayed the administration as less-responsive leading up to the surprise closure of the prison and since.

“Nobody from the administration has reached out to me to see how it would impact our community, or how we felt about the cuts or the negative impact on Washington County,” Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien said.

Jennifer Peters, assistant director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, estimated that the prison’s closure would cost Washington County 77 direct and indirect jobs with an anticipated impact of more than $8 million annually.

She urged the committee to support the bill authorizing a pre-release facility in the county. Asked whether the administration had been in contact after the prison’s closure, however, Peters said that “to the best of my knowledge, no one has contacted us.”

A Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments next week in the lawsuit filed by Washington County commissioners challenging the LePage administration’s decision to empty Downeast Correctional. A second bill to fund the prison for an additional year, meanwhile, remains in limbo because the majority of House Republican lawmakers opposed its passage during a vote earlier this month.

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

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