- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Republican Gov. Paul LePage is taking steps to empty out a minimum-security state prison and force a closure over the objections of state lawmakers, according to union representatives and two Republican legislators from Washington County.

Republican Sen. Joyce Maker, Republican Rep. Will Tuell and representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees say the administration has transferred about 25 of the 100 inmates at the Downeast Correctional Facility. That’s on top of three Downeast inmates released after the LePage administration commuted their sentences with conditions.

LePage’s predecessors also have tried to close the prison, which the administration calls too expensive with a $5 million annual cost. Maker and Tuell, whose districts include the impoverished communities surrounding the prison, said the local economy depends on the jobs and labor that the prison provides.

“It should go through the legislative process and not be rushed in at the last minute as a way to close down the prison,” Tuell said. “People can see through it.”

Maker noted that the state’s chief deputy attorney general informally stated that LePage can’t unilaterally close down a program like a prison established by statute. She said the state’s commutation process typically takes months and requires public hearings.

LePage has claimed Washington County lawmakers opposing his plan are reneging on a deal he made with them, but Tuell and Maker said the only “deal” is for a new, delayed Washington County pre-release center included in a $149 million bond the Legislature approved last year.

Tuell said he worries that if the governor can lower the number of inmates at the facility, he could start laying off personnel.

On May 19, the administration announced layoffs at the 46-employee facility and said it would close June 10. Days later, LePage announced he would issue conditional commutation orders for inmates throughout the system - a plan that his office said was aimed at helping Maine’s workforce and not related to the prison closure.

Soon after, his administration told lawmakers the state had about 65 beds open for male prisoners, and that it planned to transfer or release prisoners housed at Downeast when the facility closed.

LePage has since said he extended layoff notices until August at Downeast, which he claimed is “not fit to live in.”

“We do not need it, we are closing it,” he told WABI-TV.

Democratic Rep. Lois Reckitt said she found the facility in “relatively good condition” during a recent visit and said the prison’s focus is on getting people reintegrated into work.

The governor called for closing the prison as part of his $6.8 million, two-year budget proposal, and his administration in late May proposed keeping it funded through early next year.

LePage has since said he still supports closing the prison.

“We are taking this one step at a time,” LePage said on a radio show, adding that extending layoff notices will allow “a further look at the system.”

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