PORTLAND, Maine — A legislative committee is opposing job cuts that might endanger the accreditation of a school at Maine’s youth prison.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee earlier this week unanimously recommended against eliminating 11 positions at Long Creek Youth Development Center’s school, the committee’s clerk said. The committee also recommended reshuffling some existing positions to add three mental health professionals to the prison’s staff.
School staff have testified that cutting the teaching posts would further harm youth at Long Creek, which has struggled to treat and keep safe the severely mentally ill population it is increasingly required to house.
As part of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed two-year budget, the Department of Corrections suggested eliminating 10 teaching position and one assistant principal job at the Arthur R. Gould School, although three of those posts were unoccupied when the budget was drafted.
The education cuts would save about $1 million a year from the facility’s proposed budget of nearly $17 million. But corrections officials have admitted that cutting nearly half of the school’s 22 teaching positions would also throw into question whether it could meet the standards of school accreditation.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick previously said he is committed to keeping the school open and would consider putting out a request for proposals to run it if the cuts went through — a move that could open the door to privatization.
The committee also recommended against cutting five jobs focused on community reintegration, suggesting that two be kept and three changed over to focus on mental health.
The recommendations were being passed along to the Appropriations Committee, which is reviewing LePage’s $6.8 billion budget proposal.
The suggestion that their jobs be retained comes as welcome news for teaching staff at Long Creek, where morale is reported to be low and pressure high.
Merrill’s departure follows a string of controversies at the prison that began last fall when a 16-year-old transgender boy hanged himself while on suicide watch in his cell.
The Department of Corrections hired an outside expert to review its suicide prevention policy. His findings were expected this month but have not, so far, been made public.
Another suicide attempt followed shortly after Knowles’, and mentally ill inmates often try to cut and hang themselves, according to a report by the independent group charged with inspecting and reviewing the corrections facility. Commissioner Fitzpatrick acknowledged that there are inmates that Long Creek staff cannot treat.
A Department of Corrections study found that, as of last July, nearly 30 percent of the committed inmates at Long Creek came directly to the prison from residential treatment programs.
Most recently before Merrill’s resignation, three 18-year-old inmates escaped from a Long Creek camping trip and stole an SUV before being arrested, according to police.