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Katie Whitehead of Lewiston is an organizer with Maine Youth Justice. Caitrin Monahan is a public educator who lives and works in Portland.
As Maine schools are reopening, we are reminded of the actions Black youth took this summer, as they claimed their power and shared their experiences with racism, policing, mass incarceration and lack of diverse learning opportunities. Our governors and mayors echoed their call for “Black Lives Matter.” We saw them promise Maine youth a commitment to do the work of dismantling white supremacy in the law, state, and classroom.
Just one month after the youth’s action and following the governor’s commitment to learning from Black leaders about the harmful history of mass incarceration, Gov. Janet Mills stated that the Long Creek Youth Development Center “is a school environment.” There is no excuse for mistaking a youth prison for a school, especially if you are governor.
Youth detention centers and prisons are not schools and do not provide the support or level of agency our education system affords to their peers. Schools in Maine and across the country adhere to strict safety regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Long Creek continues to incarcerate our youth in the middle of a public health emergency without necessary precautions like rapid testing for the more than 180 staffers going in and out of the facility every day.
Incarceration harms children, not helps; it traumatizes, not builds. It is the exact opposite of what we do in schools, especially as we work with students who have existing mental health and behavioral needs.
Long Creek and our destructive reliance on incarceration are slowly breaking these young people down and stripping them of the ability to grow and learn, putting them on a vicious cycle of engaging with the legal system. It is a shame that Mills continues to dismiss the realities within Long Creek and refuses to take urgent action to decarcerate these dangerous facilities in Maine. She is standing idly by while more young people in these facilities across the country contract COVID-19 and are exposed to the legal system’s inherent racism.
The calls for community safety and justice for Black people in the face of systemized police brutality echo the calls for the dismantling and defunding of these institutions and the funneling of resources back into Black communities and restorative services. It costs taxpayers $18 million a year to traumatize and incarcerate 30 youth, but $40,000 to $75,000 to pay a teacher to serve a classroom of students of roughly the same number.
As if the sheer mention of the words “child prisoner” are not enough to convince our lawmakers to close Long Creek, Maine has the highest rate of COVID-19 racial disparity than anywhere else in the world, with 1 in 27 Black Mainers contracting the virus. And Black Mainers, especially those who are incarcerated children, are most at risk of bearing the brunt of COVID- 19. Black youth in Maine make up 9 percent of the youth population, but 23 percent of youth prisoners in Maine. Additionally, 65 percent of boys and 89 percent of girls incarcerated at Long Creek received behavioral health services through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, in the year before their incarceration. A quick look at these numbers tells you that Black, brown and disabled children make up a despicable number of incarcerated youth at Long Creek.
Currently, there are 38 young people incarcerated at Long Creek and 187 staffers that come into the facility every day, potentially bringing the virus with them. The children of Long Creek are sitting ducks during the pandemic, with two young people testing positive for COVID-19, one in Long Creek and one in Cumberland County Jail in June, on top of a recent outbreak at the York County Jail.
Since the pandemic began, Maine Youth Justice has worked tirelessly to demand the implementation of universal testing and release of our youth. Yet, the governor has not released a plan for providing youth in state custody the care, support and safety they deserve. The governor is continuing to ignore the realities of the pandemic’s impact on the most vulnerable communities, and the 38 children at Long Creek can’t wait another moment without action. It is our duty as concerned citizens and members of this community to demand that Mills honor her statement that Black lives matter and to close Long Creek.