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Report urges officials to overhaul Maine's juvenile justice system

A review of the youth prison has found that the facility’s low staffing and high population of teens with mental illness have created “harmful conditions”

By Jake Bleiberg
Bangor Daily News, Maine

BANGOR, Maine — A detailed, independent review of Maine’s youth prison has found that the facility’s low staffing and high population of teens with mental illness have created “dangerous and harmful conditions” and urged officials and lawmakers to rethink the state’s entire juvenile justice system.

Understaffed and overburdened by the number of inmates with serious mental illness, employees of the Long Creek Youth Development Center worked more than 5,400 hours of overtime during the first nine months of the year.

These hours represent tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and are often forced upon guards and other staff who have already put in long days at the South Portland facility. They are among a slew of problems identified by during a review by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.

“Staffing shortages, coupled with the severe mental health problems of youth, have led to a number of dangerous and harmful conditions and practices,” the Center’s report states.

In August and September, a team of lawyers, doctors and other staff of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank interviewed Long Creek inmates and staff, pored over reports and policies, reviewed security camera footage and dug into everything from the quality of prison food to the provision of mental health services.

Their findings broadly affirm months of Bangor Daily News reporting on Long Creek and reveal a prison where “highly motivated leaders” — mostly skilled, professional staff and a bevy of dedicated volunteers — have been unable to overcome an array of pressing issues, many of which tie back to the facility’s large population of youth with mental illness.

It’s “‘hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,’” several Long Creek employees, including senior staffers, reportedly told the Center’s staff.

The Center’s 75-page report praised Long Creek’s administration and many of its staff and noted that it recently raised base pay in an effort to fill vacancies. But it also pointed to several concerns, including that:

— Staff shortages “are hindering the ability to supervise youth in a safe and humane manner, and they are jeopardizing the safety of staff as well”;

— The staff are not trained for and the prison is not designed to “houses many youth with profound and complex mental health problems”;

— Department of Corrections training is “not adequate” to equip guards “to work with at-risk youth”;

— The facility must do more to create a “safe and supportive environment” for LGBTQ youth;

— Long Creek detainees “are not receiving legally mandated general and special education services.”

“The underlying takeaway from this assessment confirms what we already know: Prisons do not work for youth,” said Mary Bonauto, a prominent attorney and Civil Rights Project Director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, which represents four youth currently or recently incarcerated at Long Creek. “Long Creek is not designed, built or staffed to meet the needs of the youth that are sent there.

The report was commissioned, paid for and released by Maine’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. The group’s website states that it is administered by the Department of Corrections but a member said it is independent and not answerable to corrections officials.

The report was reviewed by the commissioner of corrections and sent to Gov. Paul LePage prior to public release Thursday. Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday.

Following the release of the report, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine repeated its call to close Long Creek, which it says is failing to keep safe youth let down by Maine’s education and health care systems.

“Long Creek is failing Maine children and needs to be closed,” said Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “Children are being warehoused in a violent and unsafe facility, often far away from home and community support.”

Last October, a mentally ill transgender boy hanged himself while on suicide watch at Long Creek. Not long after that, corrections officials began to publicly acknowledge that the prison cannot handle its large population of mentally ill inmates, which has included other young people who have tried to kill or hurt themselves.

As of last July, 85 percent of the youth committed to Long Creek had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions and roughly one in four had spent time in a residential mental health treatment facility before being sent to the prison. Since then, that pattern has continued, a corrections official previously told the BDN.

[Mental health centers are calling the cops on their own juvenile patients]

These mental health treatment centers frequently call the police on their own wards, according to a study by Disability Rights Maine, and their operators have pointed to Maine’s lack of a secure psychiatric treatment facility for youth.

Nearly one third of the young people committed to Long Creek as of last July were sent there directly from a residential treatment facility. The Department of Health and Human Services has maintained that youth end up in the prison not because they aren’t getting adequate mental health care, but because they’ve committed crimes.

Some youth are sent to Long Creek for violent crimes, but the Center’s report found that of the 25 people committed to the prison during the first seven months of this year, many had committed minor, nonviolent crimes, such as “Theft,” “Violation of Community Re-Integration” or “Disorderly Conduct and Offensive Words.”

Staff and administrators reportedly told the Center’s reviewers that they felt between 25 and 50 percent of the youth at Long Creek could be released.

“Any outside observer should see the number of suicide attempts and self-harming gestures as clear evidence of the inappropriateness of Long Creek as a placement for many youth,” states the report.

Indeed, the independent board oversees Long Creek raised concerns about this pattern of violence last year. Days after these worries became public, Gov. LePage declined to reappoint two of its members, leaving the board officially inactive.

Housing young people at Long Creek is costly. In 2016, the state budgeted more than $15 million for the facility and the report found that each youth at the prison costs taxpayers about $250,000 each year.

Along with numerous specific recommendations related to Long Creek, the report calls on the state to undertake an “overdue and urgently needed” assessment of Maine’s juvenile justice system, including the practices of prosecutors, judges and police as well as the role of the Department of Health and Human Services.

It suggests Maine adopt a different model of for holding youth who’ve committed or are accused of crimes, recommending a system of smaller, “home-like” regional facilities similar to the one used in Missouri.

Among the practices noted with particular concern in the report is the fact that young people involved in the justice system will often be held at Long Creek because there are no open places for them in mental health care centers or other alternatives to the prison.

“This is a systemic failure to address a clearly identified need,” the report states.

©2017 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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