PORTLAND, Maine — Corrections officials say Maine’s youth prison is overburdened by children with severe mental illnesses and that this population has driven away staff who are not trained to handle them.
This strain has additionally triggered a fresh round of infighting between two of the state’s largest departments, as health and human services officials clash with their counterparts in corrections over where the blame lies and how to solve the problem.
The continued use of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland to hold young people with severe mental illnesses has contributed to employees leaving the facility in recent months, creating a staff shortage and forcing guards to regularly work 16-hour shifts, said union leaders and corrections officials.
“As exhausted as they are, [prison staff] are doing a great job, but some of the kids that are coming into Long Creek these days … belong other places,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said. “They belong in therapeutic, secure settings in the community, and I will say that over and over and over again until somebody in the state of Maine makes that happen.”
As of earlier this month, more than a dozen of Long Creek’s 83 guard positions were empty or soon to be so. The challenges of dealing with youth whose mental illnesses and cognitive impairments are beyond their training have become a heavy burden on staff at the South Portland prison.
Long Creek guards, who receive specialized training to work with young people, have frequently been required to work unscheduled, double shifts to help cover for the vacancies. The facility’s resources are further drained by the fact that it must regularly devote multiple staff members to suicide watches or other one-on-one monitoring of unstable youth. And the Department of Corrections recently began bringing juvenile probation officers in to work at the prison and asking more senior staff to take voluntary demotions to relieve pressure on its employees.
With this extra help, five new hires in training and others on the horizon, Fitzpatrick said he believes the facility has begun to pull out of the “crisis” it was in before the brief state government shutdown. But Jim Mackie, a representative for the corrections officers union, warned that more experienced workers are preparing to leave Long Creek, in what he characterized as a “brain drain” from the facility.
Long Creek’s staff have performed admirably, but they are “exhausted emotionally and physically” from working to care for youth with serious mental illnesses who don’t belong in a prison, Fitzpatrick said.
With this population has come a pattern of violent and destructive incidents among inmates — including suicide attempts, one of which resulted in Long Creek’s first death in decades — that further strains staff. But neither corrections officials, the Department of Health and Human Services nor lawmakers appear to have solutions beyond locking up these mentally ill young people.
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Young people with mental illnesses are frequently sent to Long Creek because there is a dearth of secure, mental health treatment facilities in Maine, according to Fitzpatrick and people in the justice system. But this is an explanation the Department of Health and Human Services rejects.
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As of last July, 85 percent of the youth committed to Long Creek had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions, according to a department report on the prison population. Since then this trend has continued and judges have also begun sending young people with significant intellectual impairments there, Fitzpatrick said.
“The courts can’t be sending kids with borderline cognitive abilities into corrections facilities,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s just not an OK situation for the state of Maine.”
But the courts presently have little choice, according to Assistant District Attorney Christine Thibeault.
Maine has several private residential treatment facilities that accept youth, but there is no juvenile equivalent of the state-run Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor nor the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.
Because the secure mental health treatment facilities that serve young people are private, they can turn away or kick out youth who are aggressive or violent, said Thibeault, who leads the Cumberland County District Attorney’s juvenile unit. When this happens, judges have nowhere to turn but Long Creek.
“We need choices in the juvenile court, and as of right now we don’t have choices,” she said.
As of last July, 42 percent of Long Creek’s committed population had previously been in a residential treatment program, and nearly a third were sent to the prison from such a facility.
A Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said it is working to restructure contracts with private mental health care providers who serve young people and “will not accept youth being pushed to emergency departments and being dropped from programs because they are deemed ‘problematic.’”
DHHS works with corrections officials and provides two social workers to Long Creek. But spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said it is for prison staff to address the mental health needs of young people there and accused the corrections department for trying to shift blame.
“DHHS does not accept that youth are at Long Creek simply because they cannot receive mental health treatment — youth are at Long Creek because they committed a crime,” Edwards said. “Long Creek is facing several critical challenges at the moment and to push the blame on this department is not constructive or an accurate representation of the issues at hand.”
Thibeault said that young people with severe mental illnesses end up there because “the only place that can’t refuse to take [them] is Long Creek.” She urged the two departments to work together to address this.
Lawmakers who oversee health care and criminal justice are also looking to the corrections department to propose solutions.
Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, who is a chair on the Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services, said she became aware of some of the mental health care issues at Long Creek after a mentally ill 16-year-old hanged while on suicide watch there last October. But the issue “hasn’t fully gotten our attention,” and the onus is on the Department of Corrections to come up with a “plan so that Long Creek isn’t a dumping ground for youth who need behavioral health services,” she said.
Likewise, Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Hancock, who is a chair on the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said she’d be happy to fight for a proposal to address issues at Long Creek if corrections officials brought her committee one when the next legislative session starts in January 2018.
Last session, the Legislature funded three new positions at Long Creek to focus on mental health issues, and Fitzpatrick said his department is working on making those hires. It is also conducting a national search to hire a permanent superintendent to replace Jeff Merrill II, who resigned in March amid a now-closed and still unexplained investigation, the commissioner said.
There is no date set for hiring a new superintendent, but Mackie of the corrections union said the needs at Long Creek are urgent.
“Long Creek is just going to explode if we don’t find a way out of this and a way out of this soon,” he said.