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In a more just world, Big Al’s would stay open and the Long Creek Youth Development Center would close.
The state’s youth detention facility in South Portland was back in the news this week, after a report from Disability Rights Maine alleged the continued use of dangerous tactics against kids detained there. According to that report, staff have continued to use prone restraints — when the detainee is held in a belly-down position — counter to training and warning from experts. Prone restraints can lead to serious injuries and death. Recent violent incidents at Long Creek are reportedly being investigated by law enforcement authorities.
This week, Bangor Daily News reporter Callie Ferguson broke the story that state prison officials were set to announce a shakeup of Long Creek leaders. Facility superintendent Caroline Raymond will be replaced with a new acting superintendent, Amanda Woolford, who is currently the director of women’s services for the department, the Department of Corrections said in a press release on Friday. Colin O’Neill, the associate commissioner of the department’s juvenile division, is also leaving his position.
The department, which noted the number of juveniles held at Long Creek had increased substantially in recent months, also said it planned to add more behavioral health clinicians and change housing configurations to improve the facility’s environment.
On Friday, O’Neill announced that the Department of Corrections will once again hire the Center for Children’s Law and Policy to investigate the recent violent incidents at Long Creek. This feels a bit like deja vu, as it would be the third time in four years the state has turned to this national firm to look into Maine’s juvenile justice system. The center has already recommended that youth detainees be moved out of Long Creek for treatment elsewhere, something the state has not fully done.
Ramifications for leaders are appropriate when something like this is uncovered. So too are deeper investigations. However, while we’re talking about changes at Long Creek, here’s another thought: close the facility. We don’t need another investigation to reach this conclusion.
This isn’t a new thought from us, or from advocates and lawmakers who have been pushing for a state plan to close Long Creek. We recognize this can’t happen overnight. But ultimately, fundamentally, sooner rather than later, there shouldn’t even be leadership at Long Creek to shake up. There shouldn’t be a couple dozen juveniles detained in a facility that costs more than $18 million to run.
A recent push in the Legislature to require the state to develop a plan by the end of this year in order to close Long Creek by 2023 almost made it to the finish line, but unfortunately that bill from Democratic Rep. Grayson Lookner of Portland was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. In testimony against that legislation in May, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty reminded lawmakers that the state has a plan to reduce its reliance on the confinement of youth. We continue to see that plan and a plan to close Long Creek as complementary, not contradictory.
There has been progress to incarcerate fewer juveniles and develop community-based alternatives. And despite her veto, Mills’ administration has taken steps that make Long Creek’s closure seem inevitable. It’s time to make that closure definitive, official and orderly.
“It seems like there’s a clear road ahead and we should just start walking it,” Atlee Reilly, a lawyer with Disability Rights Maine, said earlier this year about closing Long Creek.
We continue to agree.