A North Vassalboro woman has sued officials at the state’s only youth prison where her teenager died by suicide in 2016.

Michelle Knowles filed her lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland. Charles Knowles, 16, was on suicide watch when he killed himself at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. His mother’s complaint alleges a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections approved an inadequate suicide prevention policy and employees failed to follow the basic instructions of mental health providers about suicide watches.

Charles Knowles

Charles was a transgender boy and went by that name after he started to transition, his mother has said, but he was housed in the girls’ unit at Long Creek. The complaint refers to him as Maise. His obituary included multiple names, including Maisie, his legal name, and Charles Maze.

His death prompted scrutiny of how Long Creek treats LGBTQ youth, in addition to how well it protects young people with mental health problems. An independent review later found that the prison was understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the serious mental health needs of young people who are often placed there because there is nowhere else for them to go. Advocates have repeatedly called for the facility to close, and legislators are considering multiple reforms to the juvenile justice system this year.

“This is a civil rights case about deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious injury to Maise Knowles’ life while he was a pretrial detainee at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland,” the complaint says.

Attorney Matthew Morgan is representing Michelle Knowles and said she did not wish to comment about the lawsuit. He said she wants to bring to light what happened to her son.

“His tragic death was avoidable and happened in a place where he was supposed to be safe,” Morgan wrote in an email.

Michelle Knowles told the Portland Press Herald in 2016 that her son had a long and well-documented history of mental illness. After her son’s death, she said she had begged authorities at Long Creek to give her son mental health treatment, but she was repeatedly rebuffed for weeks because he was being held only temporarily.

“They said they would keep him safe,” she said during a 2016 interview. “And Maisie thought they would keep him safe.”

The Maine Department of Corrections disputed that account, saying everyone at the facility, regardless of whether they are housed temporarily or long term, has the same access to care. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that the department would not comment on pending litigation and did not answer a question about whether the suicide prevention policy has changed since Charles’ death. The latest version of that policy is dated 2019 and is posted on the department’s website.

One of the named defendants is Joseph Ponte, who was the commissioner of the Department of Corrections between 2011 and 2014. The complaint says Ponte approved a suicide prevention policy in 2012 that failed to address the use of “suicide-resistant, protrusion-free rooms” for high-risk detained youth. At the time of his death, Charles was not in such a room.

The other defendants – Edward O’Connor, Guy Tinkham and Heather Charron – were employees at Long Creek. The complaint accuses them of not following basic instructions about suicide watches and delaying their response to an emergency situation.

Charles was detained at Long Creek in 2016. The lawsuit says an admission screening identified that he had a history of self-harm and had attempted to kill himself earlier that year. Within weeks, he had threatened to harm himself and was placed on suicide watch, requiring frequent checks on his wellbeing. But the lawsuit details at least seven instances of self-harm or attempted suicide that September and October, all while Charles was on suicide watch. At times, employees were required to check on him every 10 or 15 minutes. At others times, the watch was constant.

The complaint says an employee conducted a required check on Oct. 29 and discovered Charles’ window covered with cardboard. Employees tried to make verbal contact and even unlocked the door but did not open it for 14 minutes. The employee who eventually opened the door discovered the teenager had hanged himself. The employee called for medical assistance, but Charles later died at Maine Medical Center.

“Defendants O’Connor, Tinkham and Charron were responsible for carrying out Knowles’ suicide watches and keeping him alive,” the complaint says. “Instead they ignored the suicide watch requirements and stood by for nearly 14 minutes.”

Michelle Knowles is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.

It is not clear how much of the suicide prevention policy has changed since 2016. However, the current version mentions that a youth on a suicide watch should be housed “in a designated safe room, when available.” The policy does not describe that safe room. It also says that a staff person should immediately notify a supervisor if they cannot see a youth who is on suicide watch, and two staff people should open the door and enter the room to determine the youth’s wellbeing.

Charles’ death was the first at Long Creek in decades. The tragedy attracted attention from outside organizations like GLAD, a legal rights organization that advocates for LGBTQ people, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office conducted a review that found “bullying or other mistreatment” was not a contributing factor to the teenager’s death. The state also commissioned an independent review by the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which found the facility was not designed or staffed to manage the complex mental health problems of the youth there.

The same group has worked with a task force to collect data and make sweeping recommendations for changes in Maine’s juvenile justice system. In particular, those experts have said the state should reduce the number of incarcerated youth and invest in community-based services. As of last week, there were 26 youths – 15 committed and 11 detained – at Long Creek.

Legislators are considering bills this session that would, among other reforms, set a minimum age for prosecution in Maine and gradually reduce the population at Long Creek. But advocates have been saying for years that those proposals do not go far enough, and they have demanded that Maine close the youth prison entirely.

The memory of Charles Knowles’ death is never far from those discussions. During a hearing just weeks ago, an advocate mentioned him, as well as another young person who took his life after being released from Long Creek.

“This is why young people deserve a voice, deserve a fundamental due process,” Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director at GLAD, said during her testimony. “They deserve a chance to have somebody advocate for them.”

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