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The mother of a transgender teen who died by suicide while incarcerated at Maine’s youth prison nearly 4 1/2 years ago has settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the Maine Department of Corrections for $225,000.
Michelle Knowles of North Vassalboro sued the department in April in U.S. District Court in Portland, alleging that despite suicide threats and attempts, staff at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland showed deliberate indifference to the serious risk that her 16-year-old son would injure himself by placing him in a cell that was neither suicide-resistant nor free of protrusions.
Charles Maise Knowles was born female but identified as male. Long Creek staff found him dead in his cell on Oct. 29, 2016. He had been incarcerated at the facility since Aug. 18, 2016.
His death sparked a series of investigations into conditions at Maine’s only juvenile prison and calls for the facility’s closure. The most recent report, issued earlier this month, showed that Long Creek has failed to address issues that have plagued the facility for years. It was the third time in four years that the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, based in Washington, D.C., has investigated the conditions there.
The latest report came at the urging of a watchdog group that sounded the alarm in September over violent incidents. The report urged the state to implement some of previous recommendations, namely hiring enough of the right staff to run a safe, humane prison.
Knowles’ attorney, Matthew Morgan of Augusta, praised his client’s efforts on behalf of her son, saying on Wednesday she was “steadfast in her pursuit of justice for Maise.”
“She continues to follow developments at Long Creek and urges the state to take bold action to make sure no child ever dies a needless death there ever again,” Morgan said.
The defendants in the lawsuit — including former Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte — claimed they had qualified immunity as state employees and could not be held responsible for the juvenile’s death. That limited who Knowles could collect damages from, Morgan said.
“No settlement amount would be sufficient in a case like this and the doctrine of qualified immunity unfortunately allows state actors to avoid liability for even clearly negligent acts,” he said.
The Maine Attorney General’s office, tasked with defending the corrections department, declined comment on the settlement.
Knowles also filed a claim in Cumberland County Superior Court under the Maine Health Security Act. A hearing in that proceeding was held this year before a pre-litigation panel, according to a document filed in federal court. Wellpath LLC, a Nashville-based firm that provides healthcare to Maine prisons and jails, including Long Creek, took part in the hearing.
Because those proceedings are confidential, it is unclear what caregivers knew about the teenager’s mental state prior to his death. A federal judge ordered that transcripts and evidence presented at that hearing in state court be made available to attorneys who negotiated the settlement.