Right now, the Maine Juvenile Justice Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force is holding critical discussions about the future of our state’s young people. But they are leaving behind an essential voice in the conversations: youth like us who have firsthand experience of the system.

Although there are two young people represented on the task force, far too often their voice is drowned out by the adults and system “experts” that surround them. The real experts are those of us who have been inside Maine’s youth prison, Long Creek Youth Development Center. We know what’s wrong on the inside and what resources are missing on the outside. We know what would have helped when we were struggling: not incarceration but investment in the things everyone needs, such as access to housing, good jobs and safe places for after-school programs.

Over the past few months, along with our fellow members of Maine Youth Justice, we have attended task force meetings across the state. And while we have great allies there who are well meaning and want to make a difference, it’s been a lot of talking at us rather than listening to us.

We understand that the task force is in a tricky position – the millions of dollars that our state is spending on Long Creek are tied to the building, but Maine shouldn’t be investing in prisons. We should be spending that money on the very young people who the prison is intended to rehabilitate. Gov. Mills should include this reinvestment in her budget.

Because the reality is that the $300,000 per youth Maine spends annually to lock up kids could do so much more outside of the system. It could provide housing and mental health services for youth. It could be invested in our education, rather than punishment.

Homelessness played a large part in why both of us were sent to Long Creek, and we know that’s true for many of the youth who are sent there. A prison is not a home. It might be an “easy” answer, but it’s not the right answer.

It’s time for Maine to make a big change in the way we think about youth justice, and to do that, we need the governor and Legislature to untie the millions we’re spending on Long Creek and invest it in our youth. Right now, cities like Lewiston and Biddeford do not have many places where young people can find and build their interests and talents – places like recreational areas, after-school programs and community centers.

The Maine Department of Corrections recently partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice to end girls’ incarceration in the state altogether. As two young women, we are glad to see that the DOC is committed to reforming our system. We also know that the answer to ending the incarceration of girls is not to turn Long Creek into a women’s prison, as is being considered right now.

Why are we working to stop young women from being locked up, only to later put them behind bars when they become adults? Most women in DOC custody – 72 percent – are there on drug or theft charges, and our state can do more to help them, instead of taking them away from their communities and children.

Between the two of us, we have spent nearly four years in Long Creek. And while we’re both working hard in college or at our jobs, we will never get that time back. The task force can’t fix everything that’s wrong with our state’s youth justice system. But it can make recommendations that will make a world of difference and encourage our lawmakers to uncouple the Long Creek money with the building and invest it in our youth.

We are calling on the Maine Juvenile Justice Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force to do more than hear what we say. We want them to do what we are asking for: Long Creek should no longer be a prison for anyone. It’s time to repurpose the space and invest the money in resources Maine’s youth need.


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