Many of the problems at Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine’s youth prison, can be traced to the inadequate number of adults hired to work there, according to a consultant hired by the state to evaluate the facility.

“Staffing shortages at Long Creek are hindering the ability to supervise youth in a safe and humane manner, and they are jeopardizing the safety of staff as well,” the inspectors from the Center for Children Law and Policy determined. “The team was alarmed at the staffing shortages at Long Creek, which have led to a number of very concerning conditions and practices.”

That report was filed in 2017.

Four years later, the same consultant was brought in to study a new set of violent outbreaks at Long Creek and found exactly the same cause – “toxic” staff shortages that affect every area of facility operations.

This finding should add a new sense of urgency in the debate over Maine’s treatment of young people who become ensnared in the justice system. We have known for years that kids are sent to Long Creek for psychiatric and substance use treatment because the state has no other options. And we have heard repeatedly from experts that a prison setting can only make those problems worse.

This year, the Legislature passed a law that would have closed Long Creek by June 30, 2023, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Mills, who favored a more gradual approach. It’s now up to the administration to make clear how it plans to meet the needs of the children in the system now, who shouldn’t have to wait for relief.


The center’s new report explained how the staff shortage affected the conditions at Long Creek:

“Exercise activities have been curtailed due to lack of available staff supervision. Youth get fewer phone calls. Teachers have called out, leading to canceled school. Behavioral health clinicians have also been absent or have left employment at the facility, and they are hard to replace,” the inspectors wrote in a report that was delivered to the state last week. “(W)hat we wrote in our 2017 assessment of Long Creek is still true today, four years later.”

The problems don’t stop there. During the incidents, staff used pepper spray to subdue youths along with face-down “prone restraints” that had previously been identified as unsafe and not therapeutic. “Staff should not use the prone restraint, period,” the inspectors wrote. “And MDOC policy should say so.”

It’s not as if the state has made no progress over the last four years. The inspectors credit acting Superintendent Amanda Wolford with making a number of positive changes and having a willingness to consider more. The bill to close the facility did not become law, but there is no question that the institution is fading away. When it was built in the 1990s, Long Creek was one of two juvenile facilities in the state, designed to hold as many as 168 youths. It is now the only juvenile prison and houses fewer than 30.

But even with fewer residents to supervise, the state has not been able to keep enough staff on hand to engage them in activities or deliver mental health treatment. Boredom, the investigators found, was the proximate cause of a series of incidents beginning last summer that caused $160,000 worth of property damage.

COVID may have played a role. The volunteer program, which brings adults into the facility, has been suspended and in-person visits are not allowed because of the virus. But the underlying staff shortage that confined youth to their living areas with nothing to do created the conditions for the youth to act out – and that problem predates COVID.

These two reports, four years apart, citing many of the same problems should send a clear signal. Despite some good intentions and attempts to improve, Maine’s youth prison is neither safe nor humane. We don’t need another report to know that what we are doing isn’t working.

We need to replace Long Creek with appropriate mental health treatment, and we need to do it now.

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