A dozen advocacy organizations sent a letter to Gov. Janet Mills on Friday to again demand that the state’s last youth prison be closed, as the public waits for the findings of an independent review of violent incidents there.

Maine Youth Justice also convened a news conference where formerly incarcerated youths spoke about the trauma they experienced at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, including a dangerous form of restraint that was used this summer against state policy and the recommendations of a national policy group.

“Governor Mills, we are calling on you to join us in the fight for justice for Maine’s youth,” the letter says. “We are speaking as those who have experienced the horrors of Long Creek firsthand and best understand how to support these youth who are voiceless in a punitive, unfeeling system. You have the power to release a plan to close this prison that poses a direct threat to the lives of young people, forever end the nightmare of youth incarceration and choose to invest in the future of Maine’s youngest generation.”

Their letter requested a response from the governor by the end of October.

A spokeswoman said Mills “appreciates hearing their thoughts.” She also said the governor is implementing juvenile justice reforms that include diverting money from Long Creek’s budget to community services and transitional homes for young people who are leaving lockup.

Mills vetoed a bill this year that would have closed Long Creek by 2023, saying it did not do enough to address public safety needs. But her budget incorporates language from another bill that asks the department to find locations for smaller “secure, therapeutic residences” that could eventually replace the prison.

“Fundamentally, the Governor wants to see services outside of Long Creek expanded and the population reduced,” Lindsay Crete wrote in an email Friday. “However, the Department must meet its mission to protect public safety by accepting residents whom a judge has determined cannot safely be placed elsewhere. The Department must also provide an environment that is responsive to the needs of these individuals, that is conducive to their rehabilitation, and that protects the safety of the staff, other residents, and the public.”

The Maine Department of Corrections recently hired the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy to review at least six recent altercations between incarcerated youth and staff. Anna Black, a department spokeswoman, said that organization was on site at Long Creek last week and should return a report within 30 days. The same group has conducted two prior assessments of Maine’s juvenile justice system, one published in 2017 and another in 2020. The local district attorney’s office is also evaluating the actions of at least two corrections officers there for possible criminal charges.

One aspect of the review will be the reported use of prone restraints, when a person is held face down on the ground. The center recommended against that tactic in its 2017 assessment, but Disability Rights Maine recently reported the tactic had been used six times within an hour on Aug. 2.

On Friday, organizers talked about their own memories of prone restraints in Long Creek. Dom, who did not share his last name, said a guard put his knee on his back to hold him down, and his face was in a puddle of water on the floor that made him feel like he was drowning.

“No guard should be restraining kids like that when they’re 14, 15. … It doesn’t do anything except cause a deeper source of pain,” Dom said.

In the letter, advocates demanded Mills halt new detentions at Long Creek and create a plan by the end of the year to close the prison. They said the state should create transitional plans for youths released from custody to make sure they have a place to live, access to health insurance and other basic needs.

They also called for the state to repurpose that property as a community center with supportive housing. Organizers who spoke on the call envisioned it as a place for playing fields and agricultural programs, without the fences that exist there today. And they demanded Maine officials work with young people and their families to funnel the Long Creek budget and federal funds into community services instead of the prison.

“Now it’s in the governor’s hands,” said Abdul Ali, the advocacy director at Maine Youth Justice.

Two Democratic lawmakers – state Reps. Victoria Morales of South Portland and Grayson Lookner of Portland – joined the news conference to speak in support of Maine Youth Justice. Morales emphasized the small number of youth who are detained or committed right now at Long Creek, and she said many could go home with the right services in place.

“It’s time for Maine to lead,” she said. “We have the funding, but we have to shift our perspective.”

The other groups that signed the letter were: Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Maine Inside Out, Portland Outright, American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Maine Equal Justice, Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Maine People’s Housing Coalition, Maine Transgender Network, Southern Maine Workers Center, Portland Overdose Prevention Society and Maine Democratic Socialists of America.

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