The Maine Department of Corrections has agreed to turn over records pertaining to suicide attempts at the Long Creek Youth Development Center to an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
Disability Rights Maine, the state’s officially designated advocate for people with disabilities, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court last year alleging that the state was violating federal law by refusing the group access to the facility’s records of suicide attempts.
When the suit was filed, Republican Gov. Paul LePage was in office. Since then, Democrat Janet Mills has become governor, and her administration — including Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty — have assumed oversight of the department.
The lawsuit further argued the failure to turn over the records was obstructing an investigation by the group into “evidence of a facility-wide failure to provide youth with disabilities with programs and services that are required by law,” according to the lawsuit.
As part of a consent judgment filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor on Tuesday, the department has agreed to provide the records to Disability Rights Maine, as long as the group has a signed information release from former Long Creek residents — if they are older than 18 — or a parent or guardian, according to court documents.
“[This agreement] is important because it allows us to do the work that we are mandated and authorized to do, which is to protect and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, including kids with disabilities at Long Creek,” said Jeff Skakalski, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Maine.
The agreement between Disability Rights Maine and the DOC comes in the wake of recent tumultuous years for Long Creek, the state’s only youth correctional facility. After the suicide of an inmate in 2016, as well as a reported pattern of abuse and self-harm within the youth prison, there have been repeated calls for reform at the facility — or for its outright closure.
In 2017, an independent review of Long Creek found that the facility’s low staffing levels and high population of inmates with mental illness was creating a dangerous environment.
Disability Rights Maine is conducting its own investigation into whether the facility is providing inmates with disabilities — including mental illness — access to legally required programming and services.
Between March and July 2018, according to the lawsuit, Disability Rights Maine received numerous complaints about treatment of inmates at Long Creek, including at least five separate cases that allegedly led to suicide attempts.
The group requested records related to the alleged suicide attempts at Long Creek but was either denied accesss to the records or given records that were heavily redacted. As a result, the investigation was put on hold.
“We have had to put our investigation on hold because we weren’t able to get the records and the information that we were requesting pursuant to the investigation,” Skakalski said.
With the lawsuit settled, Skakalski said the group can resume their investigation. He said they are still trying to figure out just when they will receive the records previously requested from the DOC.
Per the agreement, going forward, the DOC will have three days to respond to a records request from Disability Rights Maine. The judgement also limited the reasons for why a request could be denied.
“We do think that going forward that the department of corrections is going to be more responsive and cooperative in the course of our work,” Skakalski siad.
Liberty said Tuesday that the department is pleased with the mutual agreement reached.
“The court has ruled and we look forward to working with Disability Rights Maine,” he said.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.