AUGUSTA — Attorneys for laid-off workers at the Downeast Correctional Facility are demanding the LePage administration reopen the prison or provide back pay following a judge’s ruling that officials illegally closed the facility.

LePage’s lawyers countered that the Maine Department of Corrections is working “to determine how to implement the court’s order as quickly as possible” but wouldn’t commit to reopening a prison at the center of a legal and political battle.

On Wednesday, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy concluded that the LePage administration exceeded its legal authority by effectively closing the minimum-security prison on Feb. 9. Murphy said the sudden closure of the Machiasport facility was causing “ongoing irreparable harm” to former employees and the local community. But while she ordered the department to continue operating the prison, Murphy deferred to Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick to decide how, exactly, to carry out that mandate.

Attorneys for the unionized prison workers are vowing to go back to court if the LePage administration does not reopen the facility or offer back pay to employees.

“Please confirm when the department will be reopening the facility, including when the employees will be reinstated and when the inmates will be returned,” Jeffrey Neil Young with the firm Johnson, Webbert & Young wrote Thursday to Patrick Strawbridge, the private attorney brought in to represent the LePage administration in the case. “Since the department was able to close DCF in a matter of hours, it should be able to restore the status quo by tomorrow. At the very least, the department should place the employees on paid status with back pay.”

In a response Friday, Strawbridge called the group’s demand of a Friday reopening “an artificial deadline” and an unreasonable expectation given the planning that would be needed to reopen the prison. Strawbridge said the administration was working to follow the ruling as quickly as possible but needed more time.

“Those efforts are ongoing, and involve necessary considerations about programming, facilities and grounds, inmates who are appropriate for transfer, the requirements of the (collective bargaining agreement), and the needs of the department,” Strawbridge wrote. “As you know, the order requires the department to operate DCF consistent with the governing statutes, but it does not require any specific level of staffing, programs, expenditures or number of prisoners.”

The governor’s spokeswoman said LePage plans to meet with the commissioner and his attorneys Monday.

The LePage administration emptied the prison and notified employees of pending layoffs during a predawn operation on Feb. 9. While LePage argues the 150-bed prison is inefficient and no longer necessary, Washington County officials contend it is a well-run institution that provides not only much-needed jobs to local residents but also assistance to businesses that rely on the facility’s work-release program.

The Legislature has thwarted LePage’s past attempts to close the prison, most recently by writing the facility into statute and providing funding through June 30. A bill to earmark an additional $5.5 million to the prison – enough to keep it open for another year – is currently stalled in the Maine House because of substantial opposition from Republican lawmakers.

In her ruling, Murphy cited the statutory references to Downeast Correctional and the current-year funding as proof that the LePage administration could not unilaterally close the facility. But she said previous cases make clear that the courts should not dictate how the department should operate the prison.

David Webbert, one of the attorneys working on the case for the laid-off workers, said Friday afternoon that it shouldn’t take long for the LePage administration to at least put employees back on the payroll. Webbert said Murphy clearly ruled that the administration violated the law when it effectively closed the facility, so denying those laid-off workers paychecks or back pay is similarly illegal.

“Unless they put them back on pay next week, we’ll be back before the judge,” Webbert said.

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