Legislators are slated to meet with state prison officials Friday to discuss a string of disturbances last year at Maine’s only youth prison and how to move the state’s juvenile justice system forward.

The meeting between Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will give lawmakers a chance to press Liberty on progress the department has made on juvenile incarceration system reforms and what has changed at Long Creek Youth Development Center since a report last month called out more deficiencies.

Liberty had tried to meet with legislators on the day he released the report by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that specializes in juvenile justice.

But that was canceled by the committee’s co-chairs because legislators had still not received the report less than an hour before the meeting was to start, leaving no time for them to read and digest it.

One of the chairs, Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said that year over year, there are consistently about 15 young people statewide who need to be incarcerated to prevent them from harming themselves or others. Many more have been placed at the youth prison because there are no other program available in their communities. But the youth prison is much bigger than it needs to be, she said.

“Where I wanted to be right now is not still spending $18.5 million a year to incarcerate 30 kids,” Warren said. “But that’s definitely not where we are.”

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Warren said there will always be a need for about a dozen beds for young people who commit serious crimes and must be held in a secure facility. But that doesn’t mean the state needs a 150-bed youth prison, and until the state commits to closing the facility, there is no guarantee that the number of prison beds for young people will shrink instead of grow, Warren said.

“If we don’t take those funds and use them to fix the system to help kids, we’ll continue to see kids sent to Long Creek,” Warren said.

In the report by the Children’s Center for Law and Policy, experts examined seven episodes of unrest starting last summer in which youth held at Long Creek caused $160,000 in property damage. The disorder led to the resignation of the facility’s superintendent, the reassignment of a career state corrections administrator, and an ongoing criminal investigation of corrections officers for their response.

A new superintendent with prior experience in the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services was hired a week ago.

The most recent report by the Children’s Center for Law and Policy was the third time the state had commissioned the organization to look at how to improve treatment of young people charged with crimes in Maine.

Liberty said some of the suggested changes in the latest report already have been adopted. Programming by outside volunteers is returning. Five more correction officers are in the training pipeline.

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While corrections officials have said they are taking steps to improve conditions for incarcerated youth, advocates have for years called for the facility to be shut down. Last year, a bill that would have closed Long Creek by 2023 and redirected its nearly $19 million budget to fund community-based youth services was approved by the state House and Senate, but vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. The closure would have occurred before alternative sites would be ready to open, the governor wrote in a veto message.

Experts in juvenile justice have urged Maine to move to a community-based treatment model for young people in more home-like settings.

Liberty has said that the department is moving toward a systemwide restructuring of how young people charged with crimes are treated during incarceration, and he is expected to update lawmakers on progress to create a smaller secure facility for those young people who need to be in one. Liberty has said he believes there will always be a need to lock down some youth, and has rejected suggestions that the state is failing its mission to rehabilitate them.

The report’s researchers found that teens and young adults acted out because they were bored. Those with nothing else to do invented games that escalated into destructive behaviors. Some made bad choices that contributed to the problem, the researchers noted, but most of their suggested improvements centered on facility management.

The report also criticized how corrections staff reviewing video of the destructive episodes used vague, inaccurate language to describe how staff blatantly violated use-of-force policies. Liberty said previously that anyone found to have violated policy has been dealt with internally.

The researchers found that programming for youth inside Long Creek had all but disappeared with stricter visitor rules during the pandemic. The facility is chronically understaffed and has struggled to retain teachers at the in-house Arthur R. Gould School. As a result, youth had long periods of unstructured time in their housing pods, with little supervision by adults. They were often left to complete packets of schoolwork without instruction or guidance.

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Some youth at Long Creek said the facility feels more punitive than adult jail or prison, where inmates have more access to entertainment and contact with the outside world. They also told the researchers that corrections officers would punish groups of youth for the behavior of one person, a fundamentally unfair practice that has sowed distrust.

Some staff reported they were afraid residents would hurt them when situations escalated. Some engaged in tit-for-tat verbal exchanges that increased tension. Other employees said they found the rules about using physical force unclear and confusing, or feared reprimand or media blowback if they used the wrong physical restraints.

The experts recommended against the continued use of heavy-handed methods to restore control.

They said corrections officers at Long Creek should no longer hold young people face down on the ground or deploy pepper spray, which had been options of last resort. Deploying a caustic chemical on young people is antithetical to the state’s responsibility to rehabilitate youth in the least restrictive settings possible, the experts wrote.

The report also recommended that Long Creek stop using a squad of corrections officers trained to quell riots in adult facilities.

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