Advocates are renewing calls to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland after an investigation detailed how a lack of staffing, mental health support and structured activities contributed to several episodes of unruly and destructive conduct.

It was the third time in four years that the Center for Children’s Law and Policy investigated issues associated with the South Portland facility. And advocates for youth prison reform said the study, obtained by the Press Herald on Wednesday, is consistent with findings made in 2017. Namely, that the facility is not designed to meet or manage the mental health needs of the young people incarcerated there.

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.

It’s unclear how the report’s findings will affect the upcoming legislative session. Several Republicans serving on the oversight committee said Thursday that they continue to oppose closing the facility. However, a Portland representative who sponsored a bill to close the facility last session said he expects supporters to maintain pressure on the state to close the facility.

In a joint statement, representatives from Maine Youth Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Disability Rights Maine and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, called on lawmakers and Gov. Janet Mills to close the facility and place the incarcerated youth in community programs, closer to home, where they can receive the rehabilitative support they need.

SEEING A BROKEN SYSTEM

Leyla Hashi, communications coordinator for Maine Youth Justice, which spearheaded efforts to close the facility during the previous legislative session, said in a written statement that Long Creek “remains a hotbed of negligence, failures and broken promises to youth.” Hashi called on lawmakers to move forward with closing the facility.

“Implementing only minor changes to an inherently broken prison system won’t change the fact that young people are reportedly ‘treated like animals’ by the staff charged with their care,” Hashi said. “Ultimately, Maine’s children and teenagers belong in their homes and neighborhoods, with the mental health and social support they need to be healthy and happy individuals. Being locked in a cell and away from one’s family is deeply traumatic for youth. They deserve care and understanding as developing young people with futures beyond their mistakes.”

Advocates came closer than ever to closing the state’s only youth prison during the last legislative session. A bill sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner D-Portland, to close the facility and invest its $18 million budget into smaller, community based programs passed both the House, 81-57, and Senate, 19-15. The bill would have required the Department of Corrections to draft a plan by the end of the year to close the facility by June 30, 2023.

But Mills vetoed the bill, calling it “fundamentally flawed” and “a simplistic solution to a complex problem.” And advocates could not muster the two-thirds majority to overturn the veto.

Lindsay Crete, Mills’ spokesperson, said the Democratic governor, a former state attorney general, was too busy Thursday for an interview. Crete said Mills had not yet read the report, but had been briefed Thursday on the findings by the Department of Corrections.

“Fundamentally, the governor’s desire is to provide more and better access to necessary rehabilitative services, including behavioral health supports, outside of a correctional setting to reduce to the greatest extent possible the population at Long Creek,” Crete said.

CHANGES IN THE WORKS

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told the Press Herald on Wednesday that facility had attracted more staff by offering higher wages and would no longer use the outside tactical team to respond to disturbances. He also said that the state was eyeing multiple sites across Maine for smaller confinement facilities with about a dozen beds, noting that $6 million of the facility’s budget is earmarked to open two transitional homes for youth being released by into the community.

A corridor inside the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Liberty also cited the state’s effort to divert young people from Long Creek. He said a decade ago there were hundreds of youths in state lockups, but there were only 29 children in custody at Long Creek as of Nov. 29.

Crete noted that Mills has been working with the Maine Juvenile Justice System & Reinvestment Task Force to develop a “continuum of care to meet the needs of Maine’s at-risk youth more effectively and protect public safety.” In addition to reforms outlined by Liberty, funding for 14 positions have been shifted to Long Creek for restorative justice, therapy and other services, as well as youth advocacy and mentorship programs.

Crete said that current data from the corrections department indicate that Long Creek has a population of 20 juveniles who have been committed by a judge for offenses such as gross sexual and aggravated assault, burglary, manslaughter and aggravated trafficking. And 10 others had been detained on charges of gross sexual and aggravated assault, robbery and burglary, she said.

“The governor believes the department must meet its mission to protect public safety by accepting residents whom a judge has deemed cannot be placed elsewhere,” Crete said, “and she believes the department must provide an environment that is responsive to the needs of these individuals and is conducive to their potential rehabilitation in a manner that protects the safety of their staff and other residents.”

Advocates, however, said Long Creek can not be reformed and should be closed.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement that the report’s findings were not surprising, but they are “shameful” and adds to mounting evidence of the facility’s failures and harms to young people.

“Incarcerating young people is irredeemably violent, both for the young people who are confined and the adults who have to confine them,” Kebede said. “No amount of reform can fix something irredeemable. Long Creek needs to be closed.”

While Lookner’s bill was passed by both houses last year, it came out of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee with a split 6-6 vote.

OPPOSITION TO CLOSURE

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, serves on the committee and said that he continues to oppose closing Long Creek because he thinks there always will be a need for the facility. He said the Department of Corrections has been working to correct management issues over the years.

“The place is not my concern – it’s how it’s run,” Cyrway said. “I think it’s going to be run properly. It’s just there are some issues that had to be dealt with.”

He said new facilities would be expensive and difficult to locate.

Rep. Daniel Newman, R-Belgrade, hadn’t read the report or read any of the news reports about it, but he didn’t expect to see anything in the report that compels him to change his position on keeping the facility open.

“I think closing it down is going to be a bad idea regardless of what’s in the report,” Newman said. “I’m going to follow the recommendations of the commissioner.”

Lookner, who also serves on the committee, said he was not surprised by the report, which confirmed that youths were subject to chokeholds and prone restraints, which can be deadly, as well as the use of a special tactical team that was not trained to handle youths and the use of chemical agents, like pepper spray, against residents.

Lookner hopes lawmakers will be able to set some firm deadlines for the corrections department to find alternatives to Long Creek so it can eventually be closed. He hopes lawmakers “keep the pressure on DOC and hold them accountable.”

“Our direction now is to set some dates about having Department of Corrections sites ready and hopefully we will come back to this (issue) this time next year saying Long Creek is empty and there’s no reason for that place to remain open,” he said.

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