March 29, 2020

A welcome non-surprise

If legislators were indeed surprised by Gov. King’s announcement Wednesday that any rebuilding of the state’s prison system must include a strong Down East component, their shock only proves that the perceived Other Maine syndrome is deep and real.

An advisory committee’s vision of a new state prison system solely in southern Maine may make sense in a perfect world, but the governor’s inclusion of a 200-bed minimum-security lockup in the Machias region rightly recognizes that the real world does not end at the Penobscot.

The Washington County addition does more than prevent the loss of 72 badly needed jobs that would have resulted from the closure of the Down East Correctional Facility recommended by the committee. It does more than avert blowing a $4 million payroll hole in a chronically struggling economy. Those things are important — vitally so in the here-and-now for bill-paying families — but equally important is the broader message it sends: the “Two Maines” must become one.

The governor, who will make renewed attention to economic development in northern Maine the focus of his upcoming State of the State address, recognizes the importance of that message. In making his announcement Wednesday, Mr. King correctly observed that it would be difficult — perhaps even hypocritical — for him to be arm-twisting businesses to build up the region at the same time the state is tearing it down.

The proposed Down East facility, in addition to substantial expansions to prisons in Warren and Windham, will add $10 to $12 million to the estimated construction cost of $160 million. That is not an inconsequential sum, but it pales in comparison to the public cost and social damage that would come with the loss of 72 jobs in a region where jobs are hard to come by. And if the state’s leadership causes business to follow, that $10 to $12 million could prove to be a very wise investment.

Gov. King deserves praise for making the right call here, but the bulk of kudos must go to the people of Washington County. Last summer, when the advisory committee, having done most of its work with no members from north of Augusta, first proposed closing DECF, folks Down East didn’t just whine about one more slight. Instead, they put together a sound alternative, including the identification of available building sites, and they made a strong argument, noting that DECF has one of the system’s lowest per-inmate costs and its absolute lowest staff turnover rate.

It is puzzling how the advisory committee, charged with evaluating the prison system only in the cold, hard light of economics, could have overlooked such economic fundamentals. It is even more puzzling how lawmakers on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee can claim they were blindsided by the governor’s announcement, given that the issues, the concerns and the Down East alternative have been on the table for months. This is a surprise only to those who haven’t been paying attention, which is how Maine got the Other Maine to begin with.

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