Chronic staff shortages, crushing boredom for imprisoned youths, and a lack of structured and consistent programming to engage them contributed to seven recent critical incidents at Maine’s only youth prison, an independent review found.

In a 29-page report, obtained Wednesday by the Portland Press Herald before it was officially released, analysts at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy recommended major changes to how administrators at Long Creek Youth Development Center care for young people at the South Portland facility.

The report was commissioned by the Maine Department of Corrections in September to examine the cause of the seven incidents in which residents caused $160,000 in damage over two months beginning this summer. It was the third time the center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on juvenile justice reform, has been contracted to examine aspects of juvenile justice in Maine.

The report is critical of some practices at Long Creek and suggests ongoing monitoring to improve the quality of service to the youths there while preventing unrest, major confrontations and property destruction. It notes that some changes already have been made.

“Hopefully this report will provide additional ideas for further reforms that will make group disturbances a thing of the past at Long Creek,” the center’s analysts wrote. “The Department of Corrections can go a long way toward ensuring that by developing or agreeing to monitoring of these issues on a regular basis, with the results made available to the Legislature, the Executive Branch, and the public.”

In a brief phone interview, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty spoke of a new push to hire more workers by boosting salaries and said there are five candidates now attending training.

“Much has been done to reopen Long Creek for programming and much of the work (the center) suggested here was accomplished prior to his arrival and these assessments,” Liberty said of the the center’s executive director, Mark Soler.

Messages left with Gov. Janet Mills office seeking comment were not returned Wednesday night.

To form its conclusions, Soler’s team reviewed reports and videos of the seven critical incidents and conducted interviews with staff and young people in residence.

As of Nov. 29, there were 29 children in custody at the facility, according to corrections department statistics.

Youths that Soler’s team spoke to at the facility said they acted out because they had nothing to do during the day and sometimes created games to play that escalated into destructive behavior. There were 19 line staff positions and five teaching positions open at the time of the evaluation, and Soler found some staff were abusing time off.

Although the facility runs the Arthur R. Gould School, classes were held infrequently because of teacher vacancies or staff who called out of work, the center’s team found. Students often were left alone in their housing units for long stretches of time to complete packets of school work without guidance from educators.

In response to the long idle stretches, residents at Long Creek acted out to get attention or have their needs addressed, the center’s analysts found. Exhausted or frustrated staff sometimes engaged in tit-for-tat exchanges, and often used group punishment when one or two people acted out, a fundamentally unfair practice, the analysts wrote.

Residents told the team conducting the analysis that they felt the system to earn privileges and freedom was administered unfairly, creating a dynamic that eroded trust and fostered an upside-down incentive structure in which young people believed that acting out or causing property damage were more effective ways to get what they wanted. Some Long Creek staff said they believed that adult prisons, with televisions and tablets in cells, are less punitive than Long Creek, which restricts regular access to media and entertainment.

COUNTERPRODUCTIVE TACTICS

The center recommended in the report that corrections officials at Long Creek eliminate harsh, counterproductive tactics that included the use of pepper spray and the deployment of a corrections tactical team that was not originally trained to operate in a youth prison. Using chemical agents on youth detainees is outside the norm nationwide and exposes the Department of Corrections to lawsuits for civil rights violations, the report said. Chemical agents were used once in August and once in October, the only times since 2018, according to four years of statistics provided by the Department of Corrections.

“When staff charged with caring for youth spray them with painful and harmful chemicals, they undercut the juvenile justice system’s goal of rehabilitating youth, and instead lead youth to feel anger and distrust toward adults, especially facility staff,” the report said.

“If staff know they can rely on chemical restraints or calling on the (tactical team) when youth cause conflict, staff will be much less likely to use their own training on de-escalation and similar strategies,” the center’s analysts concluded. “Eventually the most restrictive interventions – what is supposed to be the ‘last choice’ – becomes the first choice.”

Staff at Long Creek were confused about the rules and wary of using force at all, the team found. Some were fearful of using force, either because they believed the residents could hurt them or they worried about administrative investigations or scrutiny by the media. Others told the analysts that the corrections department’s use-of-force policy was confusing, leaving them unsure in particular situations about what tactics or restraints are permitted.

The report recommends that Long Creek administrators stop the “therapeutic” use of prone restraints, a practice in which young people are held face-down on the ground while staff members attempt to talk them down.

The center’s analysts also called out euphemistic language used in after-incident reports at Long Creek that concealed how corrections officers broke policy when they were captured on camera using force against children.

In one case, the report states, corrections staff wrote that video of an incident “revealed that staff may have used unauthorized control techniques.”

“In fact, the video shows clear violations of Long Creek policy regarding chokeholds and prone restraints,” the analysts wrote. “These understatements minimize the severity of the concerns and help to avoid addressing the serious underlying problems.”

INCIDENTS REVIEWED

The reviews of the seven incidents performed by corrections staff failed to examine the context or what led to a violent outburst, preventing staff from understanding how and why a situation devolved into a confrontation, the report says. They focused instead on command decisions, tactics and policy, without questioning those policies or inquiring how a confrontation began. Staff have since been retrained on how to write more effective reports, the report notes.

Liberty, the corrections commissioner, defended the after-action assessments as thorough and accurate. He said that anyone who broke policy will be disciplined if appropriate and that criminal charges against corrections staff are still being considered by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing footage from inside the facility.

Liberty said be believes there will always be a need to lock up some violent and dangerous young people to protect society. He said that the department has made great strides to divert most youths from incarceration and plans to do more to align the state’s system with recommended best practices. A decade ago, he said, there were hundreds of youths in state lockups.

He said no one was injured in the confrontations and the tactical team will not be deployed in the future.

The report acknowledged that work hours for staff have been modified to help staff support each other and the facility’s mission. Mental health clinicians are available at more times of the day, and young people are no longer left for long stretches in their housing units. More high-level staff members now work with employees and residents instead of in offices, the analysts said.

Volunteers and programs are returning, and structured activities are becoming more common, the report said. There are weekend movie nights, midweek bingo games and other enrichment activities.

Liberty said the state is closing in on multiple sites in its plan to open smaller secure confinement facilities of about a dozen beds each spread across Maine, so incarcerated youths can be closer to their home and families, in line with expert recommendations. This year, about $6 million of the facility’s $18 million budget was used to open two transitional homes for youths being released back into the community.

Liberty also defended the decision to cease outside visits from volunteers and some service workers at the beginning of the the COVID-19 pandemic – one driver of boredom at the center, the report found.

“We made a deliberate choice to keep the kids safe from COVID by keeping volunteers out,” Liberty said. “We did provide services and we did think critically, but the most important thing we can do is keep our residents healthy and safe.”

The Department of Corrections refused to provide information about the incidents, and has denied public record requests for summary reports and other documents, citing privacy and confidentiality statutes.

Obtaining basic use-of-force data at the facility also has proven difficult. In response to a request for 10 years of statistics about the use of force at Long Creek, the Maine Department of Corrections only produced information for the last four years. The department also has refused to release the use-of-force policy at Long Creek, citing an exemption to public records law.

INCIDENTS LED TO SHAKEUP

The string of incidents that started in August led to a leadership shakeup in September. Superintendent Caroline Raymond, who was hired following a youth suicide in 2016, resigned from her position. The facility’s former head of security retired, and a midlevel corrections official, Colin O’Neill, who had been in charge of juvenile justice, was reassigned.

Prior to the incidents, local advocates had raised the alarm over the staff’s use of the prone restraint, which can involve handcuffs, leg irons or both. The maneuver is not recommended because it increases pressure on the chest and can lead to breathing problems or, in extreme cases, asphyxia and death. A previous report by the Children’s Center for Law and Policy, published in 2017, recommended against using it.

But Disability Rights Maine, which visits the facility monthly and advocates for people held there, said prone restraints are common practice at Long Creek and it drew attention in September to two incidents in which they had recently been used.

Scrutiny and public criticism of Long Creek ramped up following the 2016 suicide of a transgender boy. It was the first suicide at the facility in 30 years and became a flashpoint for advocates who say Long Creek’s model of centralized incarceration is a failure and a remnant of outdated thinking. Researchers say evidence shows that smaller, less restrictive home-like facilities allow youths to remain connected to their home communities, schools and families and are more effective at improving their lives and helping them become healthy, functional adults.

The state in 2019 commissioned Soler’s group to provide a top-to-bottom assessment of Maine’s juvenile justice system, and Liberty that year co-chaired a juvenile justice advisory committee that made recommendations to reform the system, a process that will take time to implement.

The center’s 2017 report found that most of the youths housed at Long Creek suffered from longstanding mental health problems that staff at the youth prison were not trained to address. Many were being housed there because there were no other program or placement available. At the time, there were about 80 residents.

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