A transgender boy who was being held in the girls unit at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland killed himself in late October or early November while on suicide watch, according to two civil rights organizations. The death raises questions about the state’s ability to care for incarcerated LGBTQ young people, a particularly vulnerable group, the groups said.
In a five-page letter dated Friday that was sent to Attorney General Janet Mills, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and GLAD, a regional LGBTQ advocacy group, reference the death that occurred between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2, dates that correspond to a vaguely worded statement distributed by the Department of Corrections on Oct. 29 referencing “an incident” that day. The statement did not say what the incident was.
“Not only is it critical to understand what happened with this young person, but this death raises urgent, substantial concerns about the conditions, policies, patterns and practices at Long Creek and the health, safety and well-being of transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth,” the letter said.
The groups have called on Mills to appoint investigators with special training and experience in LGBTQ issues, especially those concerning young people who are incarcerated.
“First, we wish to emphasize as strongly as possible that the person or persons investigating this child’s tragic death should have specialized knowledge about LGBT issues,” the organizations said. “It is important to understand that because of misconceptions, stereotypes and prejudice, transgender people are particularly vulnerable among otherwise vulnerable youth.”
Timothy Feeley, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment on the letter or the case.
A transgender boy is a person who was biologically born female but identifies as male.
The number of transgender people in state custody was not known Monday. LGBTQ young people in Maine are 1½ to 3 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their peers, and 1½ to 7 times more likely to attempt suicide, according to a state fact sheet on Suicide Prevention and LGBTQ Youth.
Long Creek Youth Development Center, which is run by the Department of Corrections, houses a maximum of 163 juvenile offenders from around the state. The Attorney General’s Office is charged with investigating all deaths that occur in state custody.
So far, almost no details have been released about the boy who died, which is typical in cases involving juveniles in the justice system. Criminal cases against children are almost always exempt from public review.
DECLINING TO ANSWER QUESTIONS
Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick refused a request for an interview Monday, citing an ongoing investigation. He also did not respond to a list of 21 questions sent by the Portland Press Herald to his office, including general questions about the handling of transgender people in the state’s custody at Long Creek or any other state-run prison or facility.
The questions included: how Long Creek staff oversee people who are placed on suicide watch, how frequently youths on suicide watch are left alone and for how long, and how many transgender youth are currently housed at Long Creek.
Corrections officials also did not answer questions about why the boy was incarcerated in the first place, whether he was detained awaiting further action by the court, or whether he was committed to Long Creek after his case had been adjudicated by the courts. Only when a juvenile is charged with a felony does part of the court record become public, and even then, the court releases only a list of charges and basic identifying information about the offender. Narratives, police reports or documents providing evidence supporting the charges usually are not released.
Juveniles at the facility include short-term, recently arrested detainees, as well as those committed there by court order for crimes ranging from criminal mischief to felony assaults and robberies.
Long Creek Superintendent Jeffrey D. Merrill II sent a brief letter Nov. 2 to all volunteers who work at the facility in which he acknowledged the death, but referred to the youth using female pronouns.
“It is with a heavy heart I write this letter to let you know that on Wednesday, Nov. 1, a female resident lost her life to suicide,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Press Herald. “As a facility, we are doing everything we can to support our staff and residents during this difficult time.”
The Oct. 29 statement by Fitzpatrick referring to an incident at the facility does not directly refer to the teen’s suicide, meaning it is possible the boy harmed himself Oct. 29 but did not succumb to his injuries until Nov. 1.
It is also unknown why Merrill referred to the boy using female pronouns, and whether the facility had recognized the boy’s chosen gender identity.
The Department of Corrections has a policy for handling transgender and nonconforming gender issues for inmates or residents of state facilities, which deals with the individuals on a case-by-case basis. It is unknown whether the department’s policy was followed because details of this case aren’t known and Fitzpatrick declined an interview request.
DIFFICULTIES OF BEING TRANSGENDER
In general, LGBTQ young people are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system, according to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. While national surveys show that about 7 percent to 8 percent of youth identify as LGBQ, gender-nonconforming or transgender, one study found that about 20 percent of detained youth self-identified as LGBTQ, with children of color and girls having significantly higher rates of reporting.
“Transgender youth face a gauntlet of hostility from their peers and are often rejected by their own families because of who they are,” Polly Crozier, senior staff attorney at GLAD, said in a written statement. “The teen years are hard for everyone, but coupled with the pain of rejection and the stigma of incarceration, they can be unbearably painful for transgender youth.”
The Department of Corrections has not responded to requests for comment since the Oct. 29 news release, and a public records request filed last week by the Press Herald for documents received by the department regarding the incident has been acknowledged but had not been fulfilled as of Monday.
The South Portland Fire Department, which responded to the emergency call at the facility Oct. 29, said Friday that an incident report would be available for review on Monday. The fire department then said Sunday that there was a potential issue regarding private medical information contained in the public document. Late Monday, the city of South Portland denied the Press Herald’s public records request, citing exemptions in public records law prohibiting the release of information regarding medical information and juvenile records.