SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE -- 11/17/16 -- Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street in South Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Maine’s youth prison has failed to address dangerous conditions identified years ago, leading to a streak of violence incidents this summer between bored kids and overworked staff, an outside investigator found. 

The youth incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center have fewer visits from outsiders during the pandemic, so they’re more likely to act out. Meanwhile, the prison’s too few, overworked staff haven’t always intervened soon enough to prevent disruptive behavior or employed the help of mental health clinicians, setting up situations that erupt in violence or mayhem, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington D.C.-based firm, found. 

The 29-page report shows that Long Creek has not fixed issues that have plagued the facility for years and marks the third time in four years that the group has investigated the conditions there. This latest report came at the urging of a watchdog group that sounded the alarm in September over violent incidents. The report asks Maine to implement some of previous recommendations, namely hiring enough of the right staff to run a safe, humane prison. 

Staff have begun to address some of the problems, such as providing additional use-of-force training to staff, beefing up programming for the residents to keep them busy and increasing the number of hours that clinical mental health staff are available.

“We take seriously the issues raised by CCLP and we will continue to improve,” said Christine Thibeault, the Maine Department of Corrections newly appointed associate commissioner of juvenile services. “Our mission remains centered on providing a rehabilitative environment for those youth committed to Long Creek by a judge.”

Chronic staffing shortages came up repeatedly in the report as a reason for Long Creek’s dysfunctional environment.

Tired and demoralized, the remaining prison staff told investigators they were often confused about when they were allowed to use force against residents because the Maine Department of Corrections’ policy isn’t clear, and some said they were shy about putting their hands on a kid for fear of being investigated or criticized by advocates who have been calling to shutter the prison over its conditions. 

And yet investigators criticized Long Creek for continuing to use a dangerous method for restraining kids by holding them on their bellies, despite warning the prison to stop doing it when they investigated the prison in 2017. Long Creek still allows staff to use so-called prone restraints in certain situations when a supervisor is watching, according to the report. 

That practice, in particular, is what spurred watchdogs to call for this most recent investigation of the prison. Law enforcement is also reviewing whether to bring criminal charges against those involved.  

“People tell staff they are doing the wrong thing, but they don’t tell us what to do instead,” one Long Creek staff member told investigators. “Staff don’t want to hurt the kids, and they don’t want to get hurt either.”

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy also found that the prison has sometimes called upon a special team of prison guards that has received paramilitary training to quell violence in Maine’s adult penitentiaries to respond to Long Creek. 

That team “is very aggressive with gas and other forms of force … They overdo it,” one staff member told investigators, who recommended the prison stop using that team, as well as pepper spray and other uses of force allowed in adult prisons. 

The building itself is still in need of repairs that, left unfixed, have escalated recent disturbances.  Defective door locks caused particular problems this summer when kids started to act out and destroy things and some of them felt as though they had no safe place to hide, the report found. But other aspects of the environment could be improved, too, like the furniture. A pod with a single plastic chair for kids to sit in “communicates the message to residents that the people in charge don’t care about the conditions that youth live in.”

Officials should also stop relying so much on rules and sanctions to influence kids’ behavior, the report urged, such as punishing an entire unit for one kids’ misbehavior. Instead, Long Creek should revise policies to encourage positive behavior among a population of youth who overwhelmingly struggle with mental illnesses and past trauma. 

“There was no shortage of stories of inadequate mental health care,” investigators wrote, citing an example of a boy who was confined to the prison’s special management unit after hearing voices because the level of care he needed was not available at Long Creek. 

One of the report’s more troubling findings was that mental health clinicians are not called in to help quell disturbances, said Atlee Reilly, legal director for Disability Rights Maine, which has oversight of the prison. 

“This is troubling, especially in light of the fact, documented in report after report, that Maine continues to warehouse many youth with mental health needs at Long Creek due to a lack of appropriate mental health services in the community,” Reilly said. “Maine continues to ask Long Creek to do what it is not capable of doing. This has to end. Incarceration is not treatment.”

The lack of community-based mental health services for kids and teens exacerbates the problem inside Long Creek because the state has few places to treat kids with mental illnesses in more appropriate settings. Maine does not have a secure psychiatric facility for kids who behave violently, for example. 

Callie Ferguson

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