PORTLAND, Maine — Layoffs at Maine’s juvenile prison have left the school that serves its young inmates without qualified teachers for a number of subjects, including math.
Prison officials said budget uncertainty forced them to cut educators, who they acknowledge play a key role in improving the behavior of inmates, but they also recently hired the Commissioner of Corrections’ daughter to study bullying at the facility.
Last Friday, the Long Creek Youth Development Center laid off six teachers and an assistant principal, cutting its teaching staff by nearly half. The deep cut comes even as the South Portland prison continues to struggle to help an inmate population that has a high rate of mental illness and can be prone to violent or destructive incidents that the facility’s head said are less common during school hours.
The layoffs come as a result of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate more than a dozen jobs at the troubled youth prison, despite the fact that the legislative committee that oversees criminal justice recommended against them after Department of Corrections officials testified in February that cutting the teaching staff might jeopardize the accreditation of the Arthur R. Gould School.
“I can’t see how you can cut [six] teachers without reducing the access to education,” Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said.
With lawmakers yet to pass a budget, the Department of Corrections had to dismiss the teachers because LePage’s proposal for corrections funding would leave no money to pay them in the next fiscal year, according to Colin O’Neill, an associate commissioner and Long Creek’s interim superintendent.
“With the way the budget is proposed, there won’t be any money for those positions in July,” O’Neill said Monday. “The way the Legislature responds to that — that’s what we don’t know.”
In March, the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety unanimously recommend funding the education jobs for the next two years. LePage’s cuts would save about $1 million per year from Long Creek’s proposed budget of nearly $17 million.
The cost of deferring to the governor’s proposed budget instead of the recommendation of lawmakers is that Long Creek has no instructors qualified to teach art, physical education and math.
The layoffs left the facility with eight full-time teachers, a part-time special education teacher and a “full-time substitute … which I know sounds like an oxymoron,” O’Neill said. One of these, an English teacher, is set to retire soon.
The remaining staff are certified to teach English, science, social studies and special education, with some certified in multiple subjects, O’Neill said. They served 81 students as of Monday, but the population varies as young people come in and out of Long Creek, he said. It also has four separate vocational instructors.
Long Creek remains “committed to having the best school we can possibly have” and will try to make do until the issues are resolved, according to O’Neill.
“Without a certified math teacher this summer, the plan is to use an online math course,” he said. “The kids will be getting credit.”
All the math teachers were let go because the corrections employees’ contractual seniority system required the department to dismiss the most junior staff first, O’Neill said.
“With the amount of money being spent on youth incarceration, you’d think that there are other areas that aren’t so important to preventing recidivism,” Jackson said. “Where is this money going if it’s not going to education?”
A new hire
Amid these layoffs and worries over the budget, the Department of Corrections did not hesitate to hire Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick’s daughter for a research position at Long Creek.
Molly Fitzpatrick, a recent college graduate, interviewed last Monday for a temporary job as a management analyst and was promptly hired, according to Deputy Commissioner Jody Breton, who conducted the interview.
Fitzpatrick, who is tasked with studying bullying and how to prevent it at Long Creek, was “a perfect candidate” because she was certified to work at the prison from previous internships there, had an “outstanding academic record” and had relevant experience working at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor, Breton said. She was also the only candidate.
The job was not posted publicly and no one else applied, Breton said. It pays the equivalent of between $34,000 and $46,000 per year and qualifies for sick and vacation time after 90 days, according to the deputy commissioner.
Breton said the hire was appropriate and complies with state anti-nepotism policy because temporary positions need not be publicly advertised and Fitzpatrick is directly answerable to O’Neill, not her father.
“In the DOC we work really hard, because Maine is a small community, to make sure relatives are not reporting to relatives,” she said.
Fitzpatrick can remain in the temporary position for up to a year, and the length of her tenure will depend on the need for anti-bullying work at Long Creek, Breton said.
The future of Long Creek’s laid off teachers likewise is uncertain. Over the past year, the department has deliberately winnowed the prison’s teaching staff because a third-party report found its teacher-to-student ratio to exceed the national average for a school in a correctional facility, Breton said. The report was written by Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a nonprofit that reportedly has been hired to run schools at juvenile corrections centers elsewhere in the country.
O’Neill, however, said that if the version of the budget recommended by the criminal justice committee is approved the plan is to rehire the teachers who were laid off. If LePage’s corrections budget is approved the next steps are less clear, though O’Neill said the Department of Corrections will work with the Department of Education to ensure Long Creek maintains an accredited school.
Commissioner Fitzpatrick told lawmakers over the winter that he would consider putting out a request for proposals to run the Gould school if the cuts went through — a move that could open the door to privatization.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said “the state’s rules for accreditation have yet to be defined” and did not know whether current school staffing at Long Creek meets its standards for school approval and outside standards for accreditation.
“Not knowing enough about the accreditation body that works with the development center as a whole, we simply do not have authority to provide detail on how their recent layoffs would affect their accreditation,” the Department of Education’s Rachel Paling said. “As far as school approval goes, any issues with lack of certified teachers and administration will be addressed on an annual basis when their reporting is due.”
Although it requires school approval by the Department of Education and accreditation, the school at Long Creek is an oddity, in that it is run by the Department of Corrections and is not overseen by a elected school board.
The layoffs at Long Creek follow the LePage administration hollowing out the citizen group charged with independent oversight of the prison. Six days after the Bangor Daily News first reported that the group, known as a board of visitors, raised concerns with staff’s inability to treat the prison’s many mentally ill young people or prevent them from hurting themselves, LePage declined to reappoint two of the group’s four members. A third member never heard back about his application to serve for a second term.
As of last summer, nearly 85 percent of the young people committed to Long Creek had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions, and 30 percent were sent directly to the prison from residential treatment programs.
Staff’s struggle to safeguard these troubled young people has not relented. In a recent example, a Long Creek inmate managed to climb into the prison’s ceiling and set off the sprinklers, partially flooding a portion of the facility, according to past and present staff members.
O’Neill said incidences of violence or destruction among the youth at Long Creek tend to be lower when school is in session.
“When we map the data … it’s pretty clear that the majority of things happen after hours and on weekends,” O’Neill said. “When you’ve got school, you’ve got social workers, you’ve got program staff and all that, the kids are engaged and it tends to bring down the likelihood of incidents.”