A passionate Downeast rallying cry for a local prison, Why not?

Prisons are not glamorous.

The general public’s attitude towards them is almost always negative and rarely do they receive public support. But an interesting thing is taking place here Downeast with one particular facility. A rallying cry from a community in support of a prison is gaining traction and is reminiscent of a community benefit supper being organized for one of its own.

The LePage administration in submitting its budget proposal has reopened old wounds on the future of the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) in Machiasport. The facility has been in survival mode for quite some time and, like a prizefighter, has seen its fair share of fights. Having been knocked down a few times in the past, it has gotten up with the help of legislative negotiations and community support. Today it again finds itself on the ropes, looking for help from the communities it serves.

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When it comes to budgets, money is always the end game and is the focus here for both sides. But is it? Some people will state that Downeast businesses depend on prison work crews to help with projects for the sole purpose to save money, and if so, why should the state pay for this? The answer is because the state and taxpayers pay for the confinement, rehabilitation and eventual return of the person to society. What better way to prepare for their return than by contributing to the place to which they will return, while providing services to non-profit and civic minded organizations and gaining valuable trade skills. DCF has done this in Washington County, and has done it well.

The closure of a facility such as this, were it located in Portland, Augusta or even Ellsworth would likely be a passing thought garnering perhaps a short blurb on page 16 of the local newspaper. But here, Downeast, it is front-page news. Why? Because this facility has not only served the state of Maine well, but more importantly, has been an integral cog in the day to day wheel of life for a community that struggles for both identity and recognition within a state that seems to be moving further away from the place I now call home. When it comes to this part of Maine, we are a few people in a very big land called Washington County. Services are far and few between, and with further budget cuts to education, road maintenance and municipal revenue sharing, the closure of DCF could be a mortal wound suffered by all. In a sense, we are in a battle to save the life of a community member.

Since arriving here, I have written many times about small towns and communities quickly coming together when something happens to one of their own. A family suddenly losing a home, or hit with unforeseen financial burdens, or the sudden death of a community member, in all accounts, the outpouring of care and support is an unbelievable sight to behold. As a member of this community I now find myself needing to place my voice along side others and stand with them in support of a community member that has served the entire county every single day.

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State Representative Will Tuell says it is very early in the process, and that a response is already being formulated in both support of and potential alternatives to the closing of the facility. “I do not support closing the prison and have fought against it ever since I’ve been here. I think it is bad for our area, bad for the workers at the prison, bad for area employers, and from the sounds of it, a recipe for disaster should they actually release 150 convicted felons onto the street with only ankle bracelets. Our whole delegation is fighting this, and will continue to do so.”

Maine State Senator Joyce Maker, speaking from Augusta says, “It was very disappointing to see the attempt again in this budget to close the prison. There was supposed to be a study completed to review DCF and its value to Washington County and to the State of Maine. I asked if the study was available, but was told that it was not complete as of yet. The prison and its employees are valuable to our area. It will take away a needed work force for many community services to surrounding areas.”

Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien, who hopes to join a group traveling to Augusta to speak with the governor’s office, says, “The DCF is one of the most cost efficient facilities in the Maine System. The inmate program provides countless hours of labor to our non-profit organizations and municipalities. They assisted us when we moved the town office to its current location and they make the toys that are handed out to children at Christmas. Their help has saved the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in our community alone. The idea of closing this facility doesn’t make sense when you examine the facts.”

Sharon Mack serves as both the director for the Machias Bay Chamber of Commerce and is UMM’s public relations liaison and knows first hand the impact an institution can have on an area. “I cannot adequately stress the negative impact to Washington County if DCF is closed, not only for the immediate loss of 50-plus jobs, but the wider ripple effect that will be felt at the cash registers in every business. So many towns and non-profits have relied and thrived on the help offered by inmates – painting, repairing, renovating – that these groups could not themselves afford. In addition, the psychological effect on the people of Washington County cannot be discounted. Blow after blow, disappointment after disappointment, takes a huge toll on such an isolated population.”

Inmates from the Downeast Correctional Facility renovated the Machias 1898 train station, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now the headquarters for the Machias Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Inmates from the Downeast Correctional Facility renovated the Machias 1898 train station, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now the headquarters for the Machias Bay Chamber of Commerce.

One of the many trade areas DCF provides is the welding school. This program has helped many towns throughout Washington County in equipment repair projects, fabrication of road equipment and fire-fighting vehicles. Craig Smith worked at DCF for 29 years and managed the welding program. He states the amount of work performed by the inmates is hard to comprehend. “This program was involved in the building and fabrication of over 40 fire trucks. We did this not only here, but also in towns such as Perry, Calais, Whiting and Lubec. We saved these towns a considerable amount of money and we also provided the inmates with a marketable skill they could build on when released. To this day I receive letters from inmates thanking DCF for the treatment and education they received.”

And lastly, Bobby Ingalls, a close friend of mine, a Machiasport resident and fisherman, expresses succinctly what many in the town are feeling when he says, “The DCF does a lot for our town. They mow the cemeteries and participate in many other public works projects. These costs will have to be made up in some way with tax dollars if this facility closes.”

Since arriving here a little more than a year ago, the question I often ask myself is, do people make the place, or does place make the people? From the quick and dramatic responses from lawmakers to managers, from employees to residents, it appears that both people and place are equally dependent on each other in this case and vital to the solution regarding the future of the DCF. Time will tell how long this fight will last and who will win, and perhaps more importantly, who will lose. I can only hope it is not us.

To voice your support for the DCF, e-mail Marianne MacMaster, Appropriations Committee Clerk at Marianne.macmaster@legislature.maine.gov

 

 

 

 

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over a year ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.