“Hey, c’mon. Let’s go!”

The violent spree began when the 17-year-old ringleader, Kody Williams, called out to two other teen inmates at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, launching what officials say was a wild 45-minute standoff on Jan. 30.

Together, they broke off sprinkler heads, flooding water into a high-risk detention unit populated with other inmates. They used the legs from a broken wooden table to smash windows and a television screen. Two of them, including Williams, climbed into a ceiling crawl space and refused to come down, arming themselves with cinder blocks and cloth-wrapped fists with screws sticking out. It’s unclear how they had access to these weapons.

Guards in riot gear eventually coaxed the teens down, but as they attempted to remove Williams from the unit, he became combative. He grappled with the guards, getting his hands on Chad Young, choking the corrections officer with the strap of his own riot helmet until the blood vessels popped in Young’s eyes. The guard “saw stars” and other officers intervened before he lost consciousness, according to an investigator’s report of the incident obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Officials won’t say how serious Young’s injuries were. The mayhem resulted in thousands of dollars in property damage and forced the temporary closure of the high-risk unit. Williams, who turned 18 in February and is now at the Cumberland County Jail, faces a number of felony charges following the incident, and the state is seeking to prosecute him as an adult.

But that was only one of almost two dozen incidents reported in January and February at Long Creek, which saw a nearly 300 percent increase in the number of assaults by its young inmates on adult staff workers compared to the same period last year. The rise in violence follows staffing and funding cuts imposed by the Department of Corrections that critics say have undermined Long Creek’s ability to effectively rehabilitate its juvenile charges.

Though officials at the facility are reluctant to call it a trend, the 23 incidents in the first two months of this year put Long Creek on a troubling pace for almost 140 attacks in 2014. That compares to 41 reported assaults in all of 2013 and 52 in 2012, according to figures released by the Department of Corrections in response to a Freedom of Access Act request filed by the newspaper.

Long Creek is one of only two juvenile detention facilities in the state, housing about 100 males and females between the ages of 14 and 21 at any given time. About a quarter of the juveniles are short-term, recently arrested detainees. The remainder have been committed there by court order for crimes ranging from criminal mischief to felony assaults and robberies.

Prosecutor Christine Thibeault, head of the juvenile division of the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, handles the criminal cases involving inmates at Long Creek. She said she has never in her 18-year career seen the volume of serious cases at the South Portland facility that she has seen this year. She’s also never sought to try so many juveniles as adults as she has this year.

“The frequency of assaults has changed,” Thibeault said. “What has changed in my speculation is that there are more intentional assaults, not like when kids are being restrained and they hit or kick or bite.”

Long Creek Superintendent Jeff Merrill II said that while he is “very concerned” about the recent assaults, he does not believe the escalation of violence necessarily represents a trend.

“When something like this happens, we want to make sure it’s a blip, not a turn in the wrong direction,” Merrill said. “There is no doubt that we had some reaction from the kids and the staff about what happened here earlier this year. But I believe this is a safe environment for staff and kids, and I feel we are quickly getting back to that safe environment.”

A NATIONAL MODEL

The facility now has 68 guards, eight fewer than it has funding for, and 15 fewer than it had budgeted in 2012. Long Creek’s annual budget reached as high as $16.9 million in each of fiscal years 2009 and 2010, of which about $13.5 million was allotted for staffing. In fiscal year 2013, Long Creek’s overall budget was cut to just over $15 million, with $10.9 million for staffing.

The detention center has long been considered a national model – receiving the highest possible marks for accreditation from the American Correctional Association – making the sudden spike in violence even more dramatic.

And the state’s juvenile facilities had made a marked improvement from what many considered a dark era in the 1980s and 1990s, when conditions for children and staffing shortages made violence more commonplace.

The state settled a lawsuit in 2004 for $600,000 with a former inmate of the defunct Maine Youth Center in South Portland, whose allegations of excessive restraint and isolated confinement led to a systemwide review of juvenile corrections. The former inmate, identified in court papers as Michael T., said in the lawsuit that he was tied down for nearly 47 hours and placed in a solitary confinement cell for more than a month at a time when he was incarcerated there as a teenager in the 1990s.

Long Creek no longer uses restraints and only rarely keeps youths in solitary confinement for short periods of time, according to Department of Corrections officials.

The building in many ways resembles a school. Small classrooms line its long hallways. Teachers join uniformed youngsters in the cafeteria for lunch. A mix of teenagers and adults pivot and pass the basketball between layups in the gymnasium.

But unlike an ordinary school, none of the students go home at the end of the day. Chain-link fencing, the top of which curves inward to deter escapes, lines the athletic fields. A guard at a bank of monitors inside controls all the locked doors in the facility. Both long-term inmates and temporary detainees are locked in cells at night in tiers of spartan, dorm-like units overlooking shared lounge and laundry room space.

Until this year, no Long Creek staff member had been severely injured by an inmate since a violent kitchen attack in 2006.

Two weeks after the Jan. 30 episode, three different teenagers orchestrated another violent attack in the same high-risk unit, in which they overpowered an unarmed guard and dragged him as he lay dazed, bleeding from his face, and locked him in a cell. The three – an 18-year-old man and two juveniles – jimmied their cell-door locks during the sparsely staffed overnight shift on Feb. 14 and sprang out in a coordinated strike on the lone guard who had gone to check on them, according to an investigator’s report.

Thibeault said the injuries to the guard in the Feb. 14 attack were among the most serious she has seen in her career.

In that assault, 18-year-old inmate Justin Barry and two juveniles asked to be buzzed out of their rooms at intervals, one to get a book, another for a snack and another to get a drink of water. As they returned to their cells, each one managed to keep his door unlatched either by using a playing card to jam the lock or by simply not closing the door completely, according to a report filed in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

When the guard, juvenile program worker Adrien Dufresne, went to check on them, the three allegedly flung open their doors in a coordinated attack, punching and kicking Dufresne so suddenly that he had no time to press an emergency transmitter button he was carrying, according to the report by Department of Corrections investigator Joseph Fagone.

The youths then went on a rampage, used Dufresne’s radio to brag about what they had done, pulled a fire alarm and made a brief escape from the building, trying to use tied-together bedsheets to climb the recreation yard’s fence, the report said.

Dufresne was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was treated for a concussion, bruises and abrasions. Officials wouldn’t say whether he has returned to work.

Barry has since been transferred to the county jail, as was another teen accused in the assault, Brian Bolyard, who turned 18 this month. The state wants to prosecute Bolyard as an adult.

LESS STAFFING, MORE PROBLEMS

Portland attorney Ned Chester has devoted his practice to juvenile defense for three decades and said he now has more young clients charged with assaulting guards than he’s ever had before.

Chester, who serves as vice chairman of the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, goes to Long Creek often to talk to his clients and hears repeatedly that staffing is the primary problem.

“They are good people over there. I think they just have very limited resources,” he said. “If you want to run a jail or a prison, you don’t need that many staff, but if you are really a treatment facility, it’s all about the staff, isn’t it?”

Chester said he feels a youth detention center should be treated very differently from adult incarceration. The kids who end up there are usually from poor families and most have a history of trauma.

“These kids are saying, ‘We don’t have enough time with the staff,’ ” Chester said. “They are going to make something happen if nothing interesting is happening.”

Chester represented Michael T. in his lawsuit against the state, though he does not represent any of the boys in the assaults from Jan. 30 or Feb. 14. He said the current level of violence doesn’t compare to the “horrible, horrible stuff” that occurred in the youth detention system in the past, but does indicate a change for the worse.

“This year is the first year since the 1980s that I’ve had someone say to me, literally, ‘Get me out of here,’ ” Chester said of his clients at Long Creek. “I don’t mean to indicate it’s anywhere near as bad as it was, but it’s the first time that someone wanted to just get to the county jail.”

Kody Williams and his companions in the Jan. 30 incident – Zachary Elwell, 18, and Ethan Grant, 19 – got just that. They are accused of acting up as part of a plan “to wreak havoc, destroy property, so they could be transferred to the Cumberland County Jail,” according to the report obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Thibeault, whose office commits an average of 25 youths a year from Cumberland County to Long Creek, said a complex population mix at the facility may be contributing to the problems there.

“There are some kids who have a criminal orientation who will engage in occasional violence. There are other kids whose violent behavior is a product of mental health or trauma history, but these kids react to the occasional violence as well,” she said.

Those who are committed to Long Creek with mental health and trauma issues are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior if they feel unsafe. If other kids are behaving violently, they are likely to react, Thibeault said.

“It’s like fuel for the fire, so to speak,” Thibeault said. “If they’re not feeling safe in their environment, their own therapeutic progress is jeopardized.”

Christopher Northrop, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law who specializes in juvenile law, said he thinks the challenges Long Creek faces are more deeply rooted than just staffing levels.

Unlike other states, Maine has no psychiatric facility for juveniles. The state is cutting its funding for substance abuse treatment centers for juveniles. So youths who would more appropriately be in an alternative setting are often placed in a correctional facility more suited for criminal behavior, Northrop said.

“I think the facility has too many children who shouldn’t be there,” Northrop said. “If Long Creek held the kids who needed to be held and didn’t hold the kids who would more appropriately be treated elsewhere, staffing wouldn’t be an issue.”

In his work at the University of Maine School of Law, Northrop has for more than eight years directed the Juvenile Justice Clinic, a program for law students to represent children in legal matters. Before that, he handled more than 1,000 juvenile cases in his practice as an attorney.

“I think Long Creek (staff members) are doing a much better job than they were in the past, and I’m sorry that they are having these difficulties, but it’s fixable,” he said. “It’s fixable not necessarily with more guards but better admissions.”

Youths committed to Long Creek or the state’s other juvenile detention facility, Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston, represent only those deemed most likely to re-offend, less than 3 percent of those involved in the juvenile criminal justice system. A slightly larger percentage are placed under supervision, but most are diverted from the courts or given an alternate punishment such as community service.

In the most recent study of the state’s juvenile recidivism rate, 44 percent of youths committed to a detention facility between 2006 and 2009 re-offended within a year of release. About 45 percent of those youths were committed for felony offenses, according to the 2013 Juvenile Recidivism Report by the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service.

‘AN INDICATOR OF RECENT PROBLEMS’

Outgoing Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte first publicly acknowledged the escalation of assaults at Long Creek during a news conference at the facility on March 7.

“This is not an indicator of the train going off the tracks,” Ponte said of the Long Creek assaults. “This is an indicator of recent problems.”

Ponte said staff cuts at Long Creek were not a result of a budget shortfall and that if his administrators feel they need more staff, they only have to ask for them.

“It would be one thing if I could sit here and say, ‘Well, I don’t have the money to fix that.’ I’m telling you, I have the resources, if it is a personnel question, to respond to it,” said Ponte, who has since accepted a position to run New York City’s jails.

The day of the news conference, Ponte also met with the Board of Visitors, a Long Creek citizen oversight board appointed by the governor, to discuss possible root causes for the increased number of assaults, four members of the board said in a joint written statement.

“We are very concerned about the increase in violent incidents at the facility, especially the incident on Feb. 14, which resulted in a serious injury to a staff member,” the board said in the statement issued by its chairwoman, Tonya DiMillo. “We understand that a full review of every aspect of the operation is currently underway. The review encompasses staffing levels, training, programming and delivery of therapeutic services to the youth residents.”

Merrill, who has been superintendent at Long Creek for only nine months, said that as part of the review, he is reassessing staff scheduling, where to assign staff members within the building, conflict training and how to use senior officers as coaches for junior officers.

Merrill said he has received approval from Ponte to increase Long Creek’s current staffing level of 68 guards up to 80 or more, including seven new recruits who just completed training as juvenile program workers and five open positions. What’s not clear is how much that increase would affect the facility’s budget, or what impact Ponte’s departure will have on the request.

Ponte’s replacement has not been named.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan