The Maine Department of Corrections has been virtually silent since a 16-year-old transgender boy committed suicide at Long Creek Youth Development Center in October, raising questions about the conditions under which the boy was held.

Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick has refused to answer those questions, or even comment generally on the department’s policies for handling transgender individuals under confinement.

That’s a concerning reaction to a disturbing event at a facility that once experienced far too many of them. Once a troubled and violent facility, Long Creek became a national model for juvenile detention. By being so closed off to justifiable public concern, it risks slipping back.

The transgender teen was born Maisie Knowles but went by Charles or Charlie. He was in Long Creek awaiting adjudication for setting his house on fire in August.

As a detainee, Knowles was not afforded the same level of services as an inmate, and thus was not receiving adequate treatment for his long history of mental illness.

His mother had tried to get her son care for weeks. Charles had only recently begun seeing a psychiatrist, and then only after the intervention of another physician who had previously seen the boy.

Knowles had a history of self-harm, and while in Long Creek had tried to kill himself at least three times. He was on and off suicide watch, and he had only recently been given back the bed sheets he used to hang himself.

Because the Department of Corrections has refused to answer questions, all that information comes from Knowles’ mother.

Sources within Long Creek confirmed to MPBN some of Knowles’ mother’s account, and also said the environment at the facility is “toxic,” with rampant bullying.

Yet the department has issued only a short statement on the incident, and Fitzpatrick has refused interviews and declined to answer a long list of questions from the Press Herald, including questions on the protocol for suicide watch and the department’s general transgender policy.

The latter is particularly important – Knowles was being held with female inmates, against his gender identity, and the department’s statement referred to him as a “female resident.”

The department needs to answer whether Knowles’ history of mental illness and status as a transgender teen were being sufficiently considered in his care. We also wonder why detainees do not receive a higher level of care when the teens, most of whom are in a precarious position, can be at the facility for weeks, if not months.

The claims of a toxic environment also should be addressed. As late as the early 2000s, Long Creek was an embarrassment. Described as a “grim place” by a state juvenile services official, solitary confinement and the restraint chair were in heavy use. Violence and recidivism were high.

In response, management was changed, and Long Creek began focusing on treatment rather than corrections, and became a model facility.

With such a difficult mission handling youths with complex problems and diagnoses, the old Long Creek could resurface unless officials are honest and open about its challenges, shortcomings and outright failures.

Bad things have happened at Long Creek before. Transparency will help ensure that they won’t happen again.

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