Oct. 31—Employees at Long Creek Youth Development Center were allowed to sleep in a transitional housing unit last summer that was meant for female inmates, so they could easily return to work in the morning, a state corrections official said.
The STEPS House, a residential-style building on the edge of the Long Creek campus in South Portland, was retrofitted in January to house up to eight female prisoners. But the facility has been empty since June 2021 because there were too few female inmates. So the state Department of Corrections opened the building to staff who were "commuting great distances" to sleep between shifts, said Anna Black, spokeswoman for the department of corrections.
"The department as an option of last resort allowed staff commuting great distances between shifts to sleep overnight in the building in order to prevent tired driving," Black said. "On one occasion, a staff member, who was moving to Maine from a different state to take a job at (the facility), was allowed to stay multiple nights in the building as they sought permanent housing in the state of Maine."
The arrangement ended in late summer, Black said.
The sprawling facility in South Portland is the only juvenile prison in the state, and was built to house more than 160 people, but is now mostly empty after years of diversion programs.
There are currently 27 inmates at the prison, including two girls and nine boys who have been sentenced by a judge, and 16 — two girls and 14 boys — who are awaiting a resolution to their criminal cases.
"At no time have staff and juveniles stayed at STEPS House at the same time — nor would they be allowed to do so," she said.
Long Creek is running at about half-staff — 30 of the 64 juvenile correction worker positions are vacant — and the department is struggling to attract new employees, Black said.
Black said the labor shortage poses "operational challenges," but said staff are carrying on with their mission to treat, rehabilitate and educate youth who are held there.
The practice of allowing staff to sleep in detention housing was first reported by News Center Maine. A former juvenile program worker, Cristian Palomino, told the station that he was forced to work 16-hour shifts because of short staffing. News Center Maine reported that Palomino was fired when he attempted to extort the jail.
Jails across Maine are experiencing similar staffing problems. The Cumberland County Jail in Portland is operating at about half of its normal roster of 186 supervisors and line correction officers and managers.
Tired driving among correction staff has become a concern after former Cumberland County correction officer Kenneth Morang fell asleep at the wheel in July 2019 and rear-ended a family's vehicle, killing a 9-year-old girl. Morang was convicted of manslaughter on Oct. 20 following a four-day trial.