Legislators on Friday made a last-minute maneuver to close Long Creek Youth Development Center, replacing another bill’s text with new language that will provide a timeline for closing the state’s only youth prison.

Members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee were expected to take up work on a different measure submitted by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, to ban the use of pepper spray, Tasers and prone restraint techniques at Long Creek. Dozens of people testified last week about the controversial use-of-force tactics, including Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and advocates for more humane treatment of incarcerated youth.

But before legislators began discussion Friday, Lookner said he wanted to change course.

“The direction that I want to go … is to set a date for closure for Long Creek,” Lookner said. “I’ve heard what everyone’s saying. I know there’s a lot of divergent opinions in this committee and the administration and in the Legislature about the best route to move forward.”

Some Republicans on the committee were skeptical of Lookner’s original bill and balked immediately at its wholesale replacement.

“‘I’m concerned that this turned … from a use-of-force (bill) to now it’s a bill that’s totally different, and it’s like a new bill,” said Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, who wanted to focus on the 29 times Long Creek residents seriously assaulted staff.


Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, moved to vote down the original bill focused on banning the use-of-force techniques. Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, agreed, saying that if Lookner wanted to submit a bill to close Long Creek, he should have done so, instead of “hijacking a bill.”

“I’m against closing Long Creek, because I’m against putting these young people, teenagers, into settings that could be detrimental to the people around them,” Rudnicki said. “They’re in this facility for a reason.”

Lookner’s maneuver was divisive but still has a chance for success.

Five legislators, four Democrats and one independent, backed the amendment to close the youth prison. Four legislators – two Democrats and two Republicans – were absent. If two of the absent legislators vote for Lookner’s new bill, it has the chance be reported out of committee as the favored version.


Advocates for youth have been calling for the closure of Long Creek for years. A transgender teenager killed himself at the facility in 2017, the first suicide in decades. It was a wake-up call for corrections officials and legislators, and since then, the state has commissioned report after report examining youth justice statewide and Long Creek in particular.


Tension boiled over again last summer, when the facility was rocked by seven incidents of unrest in two months. Young people took over housing units, acted out and destroyed property, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The incidents led to the ouster of the superintendent and the reassignment of a high-level corrections official. Faced with chronic staffing and a lack of programming, young people faced crushing boredom and acted out to get their needs met, experts found. 

The Department of Corrections created an action plan to reduce secure confinement for youth, which included moving $6 million from the $18 million budget for Long Creek to open two transitional homes for youths leaving lockup.

A similar bill to close Long Creek by 2023 that Lookner also sponsored passed both House and Senate last summer but it died with a veto by Gov. Janet Mills, who said it was unrealistic for the state to close its only secure facility for youth without a replacement.

This time around, Lookner said he wants to work with the Department of Corrections to set a realistic timeline to coincide with the opening of whatever new secure facility the state builds.

That process is already underway, including an effort to build smaller secure facilities, where young people can be closer to their families and home communities. Those steps are in line with recommendations by national experts in youth justice, who say that centralized lockups like Long Creek are less effective at rehabilitating young people because they separate them from their families, home communities and school life.



But the process of transitioning from the centralized model has progressed slowly and is still in the early stages. Building a new network of service providers and facilities to provide therapeutic support to children takes time and is a “monumental task,” said Associate Commissioner Christine Thibeault, a longtime juvenile prosecutor who is now in charge of youth correctional services for the state and is overseeing the transformation.

“There is going to be a need for secure confinement,” Thibeault said. “It doesn’t need to be in the configuration that it’s in now, but we need a full pallet of colors to operate with.”

Without a set date to close Long Creek, the new, smaller facilities that the Department of Corrections builds will mean a net expansion of youth incarceration beds statewide, said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, an outcome most advocates for juvenile justice reform reject.

Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, pointed to the “phenomenal amount of money” required to keep Long Creek open for about two dozen residents, and said that at some point, the resources invested in that facility must be redirected to the new facilities.

“I think we make a mistake if we think we can solve the difficulties that some of us feel exist at Long Creel in one fell swoop,” Reckitt said. “If I could wave a wand, I’d say (to the Department of Corrections), come back to us at the beginning of the next session, give us a plan for when you can close LC, and we’ll be with you to help you get those new facilities up and running.”

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