National group to find out if Maine's youth prison implemented prior recommendations

·5 min read

Sep. 24—The head of a national policy group on Friday outlined the scope of his review of violent incidents at the state's only youth prison.

The state is investigating six altercations in six weeks between incarcerated youths and staff at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, and the local district attorney's office is evaluating the actions of at least two corrections officers there for possible criminal charges. The legislative committee that oversees the Maine Department of Corrections convened a hearing Friday to question top officials and experts about what happened.

Among them was Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, the group hired by the department to look into those incidents and overall operations at Long Creek. Soler said he and others will visit the facility in October to interview staff and youth, in addition to reviewing internal reports and security videos.

"What we want to know is: What's going on at Long Creek that has made it possible for these incidents to occur?" Soler said. "And what needs to be done now to ensure that they don't continue?"

The same group has conducted two prior assessments of Maine's juvenile justice system, one published in 2017 and another in 2020. Soler said he will look back at the dozens of recommendations in those reports as part of this latest review.

"If there were changes recommended in the 2017 and 2020 reports that were not implemented, how might that lack of implementation relate to the occurrence of these disturbances?" Soler said. "Were there things that could have been changed, should have been changed, that were not changed, that contribute to these incidents?"

The independent review is one of the steps Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty promised in response to the altercations. He also appeared before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday to answer questions and provide updates on reforms based on those earlier assessments.

RECENT VIOLENCE 'AN ANOMALY'

Liberty called the recent violence "an anomaly," but he promised to provide monthly updates to the committee about the operations at Long Creek. He also said he would accelerate his search for smaller "secure, therapeutic residences" that could eventually replace the prison. The current budget directed him to report to the Legislature about those possible locations by February, but he told the committee he would have that information by November.

"We do have a plan," Liberty said. "I would say, stick with that plan. We should not allow an anomaly, a particular incident, to intervene and derail what the plan has been."

One aspect of the review will be the reported use of prone restraints, when a person is held face down on the ground. The center recommended against that tactic in its 2017 assessment, and Liberty said it is only allowed as a transitional move, and guards should immediately put the person on their side once they are restrained.

But Atlee Reilly, an attorney at Disability Rights Maine, recently wrote to the department about evidence of prolonged prone restraints during at least one of the altercations between staff and youth on Aug. 2. Disability Rights Maine is designated as the state's protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities, and the organization visits Long Creek monthly in that capacity.

Reilly also appeared before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday to answer questions about his letter, as well as the behavioral and mental health needs of incarcerated youth. He said the youth he has worked with at Long Creek have traumatic experiences in their pasts, and he emphasized that a trained clinician should be involved in attempts at de-escalation. That recommendation was made by the Center for Children's Law and Policy during a previous review, but it was not clear Friday whether it had been adopted at Long Creek.

"The value of getting clinicians involved is to avoid doing anything where you could back the youth into a corner, whether it's an actual corner or a psychological corner, where their response due to their mental health needs, the only response they can muster is an aggressive response," Reilly said.

REQUEST FOR MORE INFORMATION

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee did not hear public testimony or take specific action at the hearing. Instead, lawmakers requested more information, including how the Department of Corrections determines the risk categories for youth at Long Creek. They also discussed their desire for another hearing with a representative from the Department of Health and Human Services. The department submitted a memo to the committee that said Maine has 459 licensed residential beds available for children in Maine, but only 199 are being used, in part because of staffing concerns. Sixty-three youth, including some at Long Creek, are on a waitlist for residential placement.

Advocates have long called for the closure of Long Creek, but the prison has come under additional scrutiny in recent years in the wake of a suicide at the facility and the activism of formerly incarcerated youth. After the hearing, Maine Youth Justice repeated its call for Gov. Janet Mills to halt new detentions at Long Creek and create a plan to close the prison.

"Youth prisons are not rehabilitative," their written statement said. "On the contrary, they are detrimental to the health and safety of the children incarcerated there. It's time for Maine to close its last vestige of this outdated, ineffective and harmful model, and finally start supporting communities and treating kids with the care they need."

Liberty said Friday that the department is still negotiating the fee for the Center for Children's Law and Policy review. The two previous assessments were paid for with federal funding through the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. Soler said the report will be completed in November.

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