The state’s only youth prison is still using a controversial form of restraint on incarcerated youth, an advocacy group says, even though a national policy group recommended banning it four years ago.

Disability Rights Maine wrote a letter last week to the Maine Department of Corrections to raise the alarm about recent reports of prone restraints, when a person is held facedown on the ground, being used at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

“Prone restraints are inherently dangerous and potentially deadly,” Atlee Reilly, managing attorney at Disability Rights Maine, wrote in the letter. “Long Creek has been on notice since at least 2017 that these practices should be eliminated at the facility. And at that time, the training coordinator made clear that prone restraints were contrary to training due to the dangers associated with these restraints. Despite this, not only do staff continue to use prone restraints, but they appear to be the go-to option. This is unacceptable.”

That finding prompted advocates on Friday to renew their calls for the closure of Long Creek. The Legislature passed a bill this year that would have started that process, but Gov. Janet Mills vetoed it because she said it did not do enough to address public safety needs.

“This is yet another example of why closing Long Creek is long overdue,” Leyla Hashi, communications coordinator for Maine Youth Justice, said in a written statement. “No youth prison will keep Maine’s communities any safer, and Long Creek consistently exacerbates a cycle of extreme harm against our most vulnerable youth. There is no fixing it. There is no reforming it. We need to SHUT this facility DOWN.”

A spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Corrections did not answer specific questions Friday about the current policy on restraints at Long Creek or provide any data about the use of force there. She said the department has met with Disability Rights Maine and is conducting an internal investigation of the incidents mentioned in the letter.

“As part of this review, we are examining policies related to use of force, specifically use of prone restraint,” Anna Black wrote in an email.

The state has designated Disability Rights Maine as the protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities, and the organization visits Long Creek monthly in that capacity. Reilly said in the letter that Disability Rights Maine heard about this tactic from incarcerated youth during one of those recent visits.

He wrote that the staff used prone restraints on six youths in the span of an hour on Aug. 2. They were restrained for as long as 28 minutes, at times with staff applying pressure to their back or legs, most while handcuffed. The letter says the youth were not physically aggressive at the time, even though they were not complying with staff instructions, and staff made only minimal attempts to de-escalate the situation.

The letter described one incident like this: “Restraint was initiated by two staff and the youth was moved quickly into the prone position. Handcuffs were applied followed by ankle restraints several minutes later. The youth was restrained in the prone position for almost 10 minutes and, for almost this entire time, a staff member was apparently applying pressure by kneeling on his lower back.”

The letter included less detail about another incident on Aug. 30, but Reilly said the organization had received “troubling” information about restraints and riot gear.

TROUBLING INFORMATION

“To the extent progress was made to improve the conditions for youth at Long Creek, it appears to have been lost,” he wrote.

His letter referenced a 2017 assessment by the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy. That review found the prison is chronically understaffed and not equipped to handle the serious mental health needs of the young people who were often placed there because they did not have anywhere else to go. One of the recommendations was for administrators to explicitly prohibit restraint in the prone position and to monitor videos of restraint incidents to make sure that tactic wasn’t being used. Another was to provide more training on de-escalation of young people with a focus on non-physical strategies.

The state created a task force and hired the center to conduct another assessment of the juvenile justice system in Maine. The Department of Corrections created an action plan to reduce secure confinement for youth, which included moving $6 million from the $18 million budget for Long Creek to open two transitional homes for youths leaving lockup.

Reilly asked the department to clearly communicate to all staff that prone restraints are prohibited, provide immediate training to staff, and seek out an independent review of those August incidents. He acknowledged the ongoing reform efforts in his letter but said the use of prone restraints was an urgent issue.

“We are hopeful those efforts will lead to the eventual closure of Long Creek and the provision of more individualized and appropriate services to support youth in their homes and communities,” the letter said. “But while that work proceeds, DOC cannot ignore its responsibilities to keep youth at Long Creek safe, which includes ensuring they have access to appropriate clinical supports and are not subjected to dangerous restraints or other inappropriate interventions due to inadequate training and support for staff.”

Other groups on Friday also echoed that call to close Long Creek. In August, the population there was 38.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the governor still has the power to close Long Creek and should do so.

“These revelations are the latest in a series of unconscionable acts of violence against young people detained at Long Creek,” Beyea said. “The entire project of incarcerating young people is violent, and it must end now. Children do not belong in prison.”

Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director at GLAD, recalled the excessive force case filed by a mother who said Long Creek staff knocked out two of her 11-year-old son’s teeth. The state paid $250,000 to settle that lawsuit in 2019.

“For any number of reasons, and despite good faith efforts by many involved, Long Creek is not working and not providing rehabilitation,” Bonauto said. “The Legislature agreed in the last session, as shown by the passage of L.D. 1668, which set out a years-long plan for closing Long Creek and justly transitioning workers employed there. These concerns remain, and the state needs to provide immediate oversight to end this brutal treatment now.”

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