February 04, 2023

Imprisoned by Politics > Downeast Correctional Facility, Washington County economy await verdict on state’s prison restructuring proposals.

BUCKS HARBOR — Clammers are silhouetted against the flats far out in Sanborn Cove. A wheelbarrow filled with acorn squash for sale sits in a dooryard. The spire of a white clapboard church perched on a steep bluff comes into view.

These are some views from the 10-mile, hilly stretch of country road leading from Bad Little Falls in Machias to the Downeast Correctional Facility in the village of Bucks Harbor in Machiasport. It must seem like venturing to the end of the Earth for family and friends who make the trek to visit inmates who come from southern Maine.

On a peninsula — 20 miles as the crow flies from Maine’s easternmost point at West Quoddy Head — the Bucks Harbor prison’s remote location is one of many reasons the facility doesn’t figure in current plans to overhaul the state’s costly, scattered corrections system.

But it’s the natural beauty, peace and quiet and sense of community that have kept many of DCF’s 72 employees living and working in the Machias Valley area for decades. The small prison boasts the lowest employee turnover rate of any state corrections facility. It’s one of the cheapest to operate. And its prisoners save the state and local communities $3.5 million a year in labor costs — painting churches, refurbishing firetrucks, fighting forest fires, working on road crews and performing countless other tasks.

By year’s end, a governor-appointed task force is supposed to recommend the best way to restructure Maine’s prison system, which has the second-lowest population, but is the second most expensive to run in the nation. It now costs an average of $72 a day to house a prisoner. Only Alaska has a higher per-inmate cost.

On the table are two models. One would consolidate Maine’s rising adult prison population between the Maine Correctional Center in South Windham and the Maine Correctional Institute, nicknamed the Supermax, and the Bolduc Correctional Facility, both in Warren. These facilities would require expansion and upgrading.

The other model involves housing adult offenders at the Warren and South Windham facilities, but adding a 200-bed, minimum-security prison in Washington County. This alternative was tacked onto the task force’s options after there was loud protests from Washington County over the first model, which left the region out of the picture.

“Losing these 72 jobs in Machiasport would be like losing 780 jobs in Windham, 190 jobs in Warren,” Dianne Tilton, director of the Sunrise County Economic Council, calculated in a recent letter published in the Bangor Daily News. She asked, “Would any study seriously recommend doing this type of economic damage on the one hand for the sake of efficiency on the other?”

Sense of betrayal

Driving down Route 92, one could almost miss the entrance to the Bucks Harbor prison. A small sign points the way to the medium- and maximum-security facility at the foot of Howard Mountain. A razor-wire fence surrounds the compound of barracks and Quonset huts.

Opened in 1985, DCF has 140 prisoners and 72 employees. More than half of its prison population are sex offenders. Half of them come from eastern and northern Maine. The rest hail from the southern part of the state.

Many Bucks Harbor prison staff remember only too well when state officials, grappling with an acute bed shortage, made a hard sales pitch locally to turn the Air Force’s closed Bucks Harbor radar station into the present facility back in the early 1980s.

Now, the state’s talk of closing the prison is seen as a betrayal.

“They said listen, we’d like to build a prison here. Local residents were against it. Now, they’re saying, we’re leaving,” C. Mark Caton, the prison’s director, said last week. “This facility has saved the state a lot of money. It enabled the state to acquire bed space on the cheap.”

Nevertheless, Caton is keenly aware of his prison’s shortcomings. He says prisoners can’t be locked in their cells. There are not enough cells, and some have three or four inmates. The underground steam lines are 30 years old. Pipes and valves have rotted.

“This is not designed to be a prison. When things go wrong, they really go wrong,” he said.

The facility does have a reputation for cost-efficiency. What’s its secret? Watching every penny and being resourceful as many people and businesses are in Washington County.

Business manager Sandra Altmannsberger recalls how the prison’s welding teacher and inmates fabricated the steel bunk beds. She says the maintenance-vocational staff built a new security-control room for far less than commercial bidders. She saved considerable money buying used clothing for inmates. She ticks off many other examples.

Altmannsberger has been at the prison since day one. She says more than half of the other employees have too. She says many have bought homes and vehicles financed by local banks.

“Around here, there are very few jobs that pay steady income,” she said, predicting a closure would force many to “fall back on public assistance for medical costs.”

Many prison employees have lived elsewhere in Maine and around the country. They say family ties and the way of life drew them to the Machias Valley area.

East Machias resident Valerie Day has worked as a clerk-typist at the prison since it opened. Her job has enabled her to start building a house.

“Nobody is getting rich in this business. it pays the bills but there are no bits of lace and ribbon to go with it,” she said, worrying whether she’ll be able to afford her new home. “I am really not fond of gutting fish.”

In the welding shop, vocational instructor Craig Smith was supervising inmates patching a fire engine tank belonging to Machiasport. If the prison closes, he said employees committed to living Down East have few options.

“You either go to Woodland and work at the mill or do the seasonal stuff and no benefits,” he summed up.

Poor economy

Washington County has about 35,000 inhabitants. For years, its unemployment rates — now at about 10 percent — have been among the highest in Maine and the nation. Its resource-based economy centers on forest products, fisheries and agriculture. Its wild blueberry, fledgling cranberry and aquaculture industries are vulnerable to disease and nature’s whims.

“You can name 10 things that people have no control over: fishing, disease and drought …,” Dianne Tilton said. She recalls the sardine industry as once a major business that has since declined. “For the most part, it was cutting wood, picking blueberries and working in sardine factories.”

In the Machias area, the Bucks Harbor prison is among the few employers offering steady, year-round jobs with benefits. The loss of its 72 positions and $2.8 million payroll would be a harsh blow to an already depressed economy. “The fact they are full-time jobs, which pay well, makes them valuable,” Tilton said. “As Washington County, we probably need them a lot more than other parts of the state.”

The council’s mission is to improve long-term economic conditions in Washington County. Its work has focused on existing industries. Helping a Milbridge seafood dealer develop a business plan to process and market sea cucumbers and assisting small blueberry growers to package and sell their prime fruit as gourmet produce have been among its projects.

For two years, Tilton has worked closely with Gov. Angus King’s Cabinet Subcommittee on Economic Development to identify and channel state funds to promising local projects. To date, the joint effort has yielded $200,000 in investments and 100 additional jobs.

“Closing the Bucks Harbor facility would undo much of the good of those state government investments. Its efficency should be duplicated rather than eliminated, rewarded rather than dismissed,” she said. “How can the state expect a business or industry to locate here, when they are not willing to do the same?”

Too many prisons

Since taking office in 1995, Gov. King has made it a priority to boost the Washington County economy. Three months into his term, he helped forge the partnership between the Sunrise Council and Subcommittee on Economic Development. This year, his staff played a pivotal role in getting the state’s largest cranberry farm off the ground.

At the same time, King has committed to overhauling Maine’s prison system consisting of six adult prisons, two pre-release centers and two juvenile corrections facilities dispersed across the state. Per-prisoner costs vary widely, from $33 a day at the Bangor Pre-release Center to $88 a day at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. The cost at Bucks Harbor is $65.

Maine’s inmate population now averages about 1,618 daily compared to 852 nearly a decade ago. It is expected to reach at least 1,700 by 2006. It is growing — not due to a rise in crime, but because of a federal law requiring offenders to serve a greater percentage of their sentence. As a result, prison stays are longer.

Early this year, the governor appointed a task force to look into restructuring the prison system. Using $260,000 in federal funds, the state hired Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates of Virginia to inventory the facilities and recommend how they could be improved.

In its report completed last June, Pulitzer/Bogard concluded Maine’s corrections system was so costly because it had too many small prisons scattered around the state. It found many of the facilities were either antiquated or inherently flawed in their layout. It also determined not enough programs were being offered to rehabilite inmates and reduce repeat offenses.

The Bucks Harbor prison scored low on state codes and standards. The fact that it is over capacity and housed in a former military installation — not designed as a prison — were other points against it. It was barely mentioned in the consultants’ executive summary.

Pulitzer/Bogard gave the state several choices including merging the prisoner population into one or two existing prisons. It singled out the Warren and Windham facilities because they meet modern standards and have adequate infrastructure. Proximity to job markets, courts, medical centers and inmates’ families were other factors.

Left out

Last June, King’s task force voted to pursue the two-prison model. It was considered the most practical option costing taxpayers the least. Many of those voting were from southern Maine. None were from Washington County.

Bucks Harbor resident Sandra Prescott, a former legislator and current director of the Washington-Hancock Community Agency, was appointed to the task force after the vote and a subsequent backlash from Washington County.

“I am one lonely voice. I was only appointed because Down East hollered to be there,” she said last week. “I am not equal representation. I am a token vote but I can bark loudly.”

Prescott says that because of pressure from her and Rep. George Bunker, D-Topsfield, a 200-bed, minimum-security prison in Washington County, employing 400 people, is now part of the equation.

In September, King assured Washington County business leaders and municipal officials that his mind was not made up. He urged them to make a case for having a prison there.

Rep. Martha Bagley, D-Machias, quickly organized a committee made up of legislators, educators, business leaders and county and municipal officials. The group has come up with three alternatives to be presented to King when he visits Maine Atlantic Salmon in Machiasport Nov. 13.

As a first option, the committee suggests bringing the Bucks Harbor prison up to standard and using it to house inmates normally segregated in a larger prison. Its second idea is to build a 200-bed prison in the Machias Industrial Park. The town-owned park has more than 20 acres available as well as water, sewer and utilities.

Another alternative is to construct a large prison at the Air Force radar station in Columbia Falls. That installation is due to close.

To support its proposal, the committee notes Washington County has an abundant labor supply. It singles out the Bucks Harbor prison’s low staff turnover and worker’s comp claim rates. It identifies the University of Machias, Washington County Technical College and various medical facilities as other assets.

“It’s not like we are sitting out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to offer,” Sally Crowley, Machias town manager and committee member, said last week.

Maine Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson toured the Bucks Harbor facility, Machias Industrial Park and Columbia Falls site last month. He said the committee’s proposal is being considered.

“It’s going to get a very close, hard look,” he said last week. “We are not just going through the motions.”

Little opposition

It is probably too early to gauge, but there appears to be little local opposition to the idea of a 200-bed prison being built in Washington County. It’s hard to find anyone against the concept.

In the Machias area, especially, the bank, hospital, pharmacy, supermarket, restaurants, fuel companies, hardware stores, car dealerships and countless other businesses would stand to lose if the Bucks Harbor facility closed and wasn’t replaced.

Don Ficker, a Machiasport selectman and substance abuse counselor, from an elected official’s perspective, favors having a prison. As a resident, though, he has concerns about the area becoming too dependent on one industry.

“I would favor an improved climate for small businesses because that fits in with the social history here,” he reflected last week. “Many people are self-employed and work seasonally.”

Down at Helen’s Restaurant — a local institution famous for blueberry, raspberry and other pies — Machias Selectman David Keezer took time out from his full-time job at Pine Tree Cable. He says the prison would be hard to replace as an employer.

He says it’s hard enough to attract new businesses to Washington County without existing ones leaving.

“If the state can’t feel comfortable investing in Washington County, how can we begin to convince a potential industrial concern or developer to come in?” he asked last week. “If we’re not good enough for the state of Maine, we’re not good enough for anybody.”

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