Department of Corrections Associate Commissioner Colin O'Neill (left) testifies at a legislative hearing at the Maine State House in Augusta on Feb. 27, 2018. Credit: Jake Bleiberg / BDN

The Maine Department of Corrections will again hire a national firm to investigate recent violent incidents at the state’s embattled youth prison, a top official said Friday. 

It would be the third time in four years the state has hired the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington D.C.-based firm, to investigate and make recommendations for how to improve Maine’s conditions inside the juvenile justice system. 

The announcement by Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner of juvenile corrections services, comes roughly two weeks after advocacy group Disability Rights Maine sent a letter to the Department of Corrections raising alarm over “urgent safety concerns” at the South Portland lockup, including that staff continued to use a dangerous form of restraining kids despite having been warned by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy to stop using the practice in 2017.

It comes a day after lawmakers told the Bangor Daily News that the superintendent of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, as well as the head of security, would resign in the wake of incidents at the prison last month, and that O’Neill would be leaving his position overseeing juvenile justice for the state. 

O’Neill confirmed that he was resigning during a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group on Friday. His comments were the first public remarks from his department acknowledging the reported staffing shakeup among those who oversee the troubled youth prison, after corrections officials declined to respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

“Several weeks ago I approached the commissioner to let him know I’d be stepping down as associate commissioner,” O’Neill said Friday.

He said the department has done good work recently, but acknowledged “the last couple years have been pretty challenging for me personally” and it was time to move on. He said he didn’t have a timeline for when his change would take effect and he didn’t say what new duties he would be taking on.

Later on Friday, the department released a lengthy statement confirming that in addition to O’Neill, Caroline Raymond, Long Creek’s superintendent since 2017, had also resigned. Amanda Woolford, who serves as the department’s director of women’s services, will take over as acting superintendent.

The department also provided more information on a reported criminal investigation into recent events at Long Creek. Five violent incidents between staff and incarcerated kids between Aug. 2 and Sept. 13 are under investigation by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office.

“There’s a small group that wants to fight, be aggressive and destroy things,” Liberty said, which can result in more forceful clashes with staff. 

The string of violent incidents occurred after the prison saw an influx of high-risk kids detained at the prison last month, causing the prison’s population to jump above 41 people, nearly double what it was earlier this summer, according to the department. The commissioner didn’t give a single reason for the surge, but noted that the courts, who have the power to send kids to Long Creek, have been more active than at the beginning of the pandemic. 

In the wake of the recent violence, prison officials are planning to address how kids there are housed, bring in more clinicians who specialize in treating aggressive behavior and re-train staff in responding to large disturbances. 

In 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy issued an assessment of conditions at Long Creek that confirmed a series of trouble reports about a pattern of violence and staffing issues at the state’s only youth detention center. 

In early 2020, the firm issued another report that examined Maine’s broader juvenile justice system, which included recommendations for how the state could improve, including that officials should shutter Long Creek over the next few years. A bill that would have done so passed the Legislature this spring but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat.

The letter from Disability Rights Maine urged the department to once again enlist the Center for Children’s Law and Policy to provide an outside investigation of what was going on inside the prison after the organization’s lawyers heard from kids that dangerous conditions inside still hadn’t stopped.

The state has started talking with the firm to obtain “some assessment and investigation with the incidents that have happened at Long Creek to give us an objective perspective, and also to assess our response,” O’Neill said. Liberty expects the investigation to end within 60 days. 

A youth-led group that has spearheaded the campaign to close Long Creek said the state should stop all new detentions there. While it welcomed the news of an outside review, it questioned the value of yet another report on how to improve conditions at the prison from a firm that has already recommended the state close the facility.

“We don’t have confidence that the DOC will listen to those recommendations because they haven’t for the past four years,” said Al Cleveland, the campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice. “The only solution is closure.”

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.