Council vote may block halfway house for former Long Creek inmates from opening in Westbrook

Posted April 13, 2017, at 7:54 a.m.
Last modified April 13, 2017, at 9:53 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Department of Corrections and a prisoner advocate are decrying actions by the city of Westbrook that appear to block a community reintegration facility for former youth prisoners from opening in a residential neighborhood.

For months, the Department of Corrections and the Opportunity Alliance, a community group, have been working to ready a Westbrook house to serve as a transitional facility for a small number of male prisoners released from the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the state’s juvenile prison.

The halfway house would have been the first of its kind in Maine and vital to ensuring that young prisoners be released into a supportive environment, according to Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick. But it may not be opening because last Monday the City Council approved a measure that prohibits this type of facility in all but one part of the city.

“This was a really exciting opportunity for the [Long Creek] resident and for juvenile corrections in Maine,” Fitzpatrick said. “The unfortunate actions of the City Council have gone a long way towards preventing such an opportunity.”

“The program will not be happening in Westbrook, and we are currently uncertain of its future” Opportunity Alliance spokesman James Gemmell said in an email.

The group has a contract with the Department of Corrections for a transitional home, Fitzpatrick said. It purchased the Victoria house at 6 State St. for $310,000, according to real estate records.

If things had gone as planned, the four-bedroom home would have eventually housed six carefully screened former prisoners from Long Creek, according to Fitzpatrick. It would have been staffed 24 hours a day by employees of the Department of Corrections or the Opportunity Alliance, who would have helped the former inmates adjust to life outside of prison and learn independent living skills, he said.

Joseph Jackson, who heads the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, says there’s an urgent need to get youth out of Long Creek. He sees the city’s actions as hindering that.

Over the past year, Long Creek has been embroiled in a string of controversies including its first suicide in decades, a prisoner escape, and most recently the resignation of its superintendent amid an unexplained and now-closed investigation. The South Portland prison also is unable to treat and is struggling to keep safe prisoners with severe mental illness whom it is increasingly required to house, according to a report by the prison’s Board of Visitors.

“We’re saying that we should be getting kids out of Long Creek and back into the community, but what happens when the community itself is creating barriers?” Jackson said. “This is a really unhealthy environment now and people shouldn’t be there.”

Maine has fallen behind the national standard in how it reintegrates youth prisoners, and this facility would have helped correct that, Fitzpatrick said. More than a third of the state’s committed youths reoffend within a year of their release and more than half do within two years, according to the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Westbrook officials said that they were not trying to stop the halfway house from opening, and that it would have been allowed to had it not failed a city inspection. City Administrator Jerre Bryant noted than another group, the Transformation Project, is working to open another transitional home in the downtown, where it is allowed by the ordinance.

“Absolutely not,” Bryant said, when asked if the new rules were aimed at the correction’s facility. “The process of developing the ordinance started a few months ago.”

City Councilor Anna Turcotte echoed this sentiment. There was community opposition to the halfway house, Turcotte said, but she expected it would be allowed to open when she voted for the ordinance change last Monday.

Bryant said that the facility needed a certificate of occupancy to open. It was inspected for this certificate two days after the City Council passed the restrictions on where halfway houses can operate, according to letter signed by the head of Westbrook code enforcement.

The property failed inspection based on more than a dozen fire safety code violations, according to the letter, and it is therefore subject to the new ordinance. Had the building passed, it would have been exempt because the inspection was requested before the council’s vote, the letter states.

The inspector’s decision can be appealed to the Westbrook zoning board.

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