The Maine Department of Corrections will hire a national policy group to do another review at the state’s only youth prison, taking the step following a string of violent incidents there and the departure of three top officials.

The state is investigating five altercations in six weeks between incarcerated youths and staff at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. On Friday, Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty put much of the blame for the recent turmoil on the juveniles, even as seven officers are under scrutiny for their use of force.

He confirmed that the local district attorney’s office is evaluating the actions of at least two officers for possible criminal charges, and the Maine Attorney General’s office is looking at five others for potential policy violations.

“For those individuals that do not follow proper techniques and restraints, they’ll be held accountable,” Liberty said.

Yet in a lengthy statement and an interview Friday, Liberty emphasized the actions of the teens. He said they have thrown furniture or broken it apart to use as weapons, assaulted others, flooded a residence hall and caused more than $100,000 in damage to the building. He also said the majority of the young people at Long Creek now are considered “high risk” because they have been charged with crimes such as arson or aggravated assault and pose a threat to public safety.

Asked whether the department shares any responsibility for the violence that has occurred inside Long Creek this summer, Liberty said the employees there do the best they can in challenging circumstances.

“When we talk about these incidents, it’s important for the people to know who the youth are and what their pattern of behavior is in the community,” Liberty said in an interview.

Maine Youth Justice, a group led by young people who have been incarcerated in Long Creek, has repeatedly called for the prison’s closure. Skye Gosselin, one of the group’s founders, said Friday that no adult should ever use potentially deadly force on a child.

“The MDOC’s statement consisted largely of excuses failing to account for why youth were subjected to potentially deadly restraints at Long Creek instead of acknowledging the fact that these reprehensible acts occurred,” Gosselin said. “These continued reports of violence coming out of Long Creek have led to the same conclusion: As long as Long Creek remains open, our youth are simply not safe. The MDOC cannot be trusted to protect the safety and wellbeing of the youth in their custody.”

A THIRD REVIEW

The department also announced Friday that the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy would conduct a review of practices, policies and operations at Long Creek. The same group has published two assessments in the last four years that identified problems in Maine’s juvenile justice system. The state has acted on some of those recommendations, funneling money to community programs and opening a transitional home for girls leaving lockup. But it has not pursued others, like the suggestion that Maine should move juvenile justice services out of the purview of the Department of Corrections. The center’s executive director did not respond to a voicemail or an email Friday.

Liberty said other actions will include adding more behavioral health clinicians who specialize in working with juveniles with aggressive tendencies and retraining staff on the management of mass disturbances and use of force.

Caroline Raymond, superintendent of the Long Creek Youth Development Center, has resigned.

The commissioner also confirmed the recent resignations of Caroline Raymond, the superintendent of Long Creek, and Colin O’Neill, the associate commissioner who was in charge of juvenile services. A third employee also retired as the head of security at Long Creek.

But Liberty said Raymond and O’Neill are still employed by the Department of Corrections, and the leadership shakeup was not the result of discipline for the recent incidents at Long Creek.

Liberty said O’Neill will remain in his post until he finds another job. Raymond is working in the central office, and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy will work with the department on a nationwide search for her replacement. Amanda Woolford, who is currently the department’s director of women’s services, will be the acting superintendent.

“They were absolutely driven by the employees,” Liberty said of the changes. “They came to us and indicated that they would like to resign their positions.”

Liberty shared the recent developments at Long Creek with a small group of legislators before he disclosed them publicly. Those lawmakers have said they expect to hold a hearing to question the commissioner in public.

DANGEROUS TACTICS EMPLOYED

The five altercations took place between Aug. 2 and Sept. 13. Liberty said Friday that he could not discuss the specific actions by corrections officers because they are under investigation. But Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat, said he referenced headlocks during his meeting with legislators. And Disability Rights Maine recently wrote to the department about the continued use of a dangerous tactic called a prone restraint, when a person is held face down on the ground. In that letter, an attorney said youths were restrained that way for as long as 28 minutes, at times with staff applying pressure to their back or legs, most while handcuffed.

Anna Black, a department spokeswoman, declined a request for a copy of the use-of-force policy at Long Creek. She said it is confidential because it contains information about security and operations that could jeopardize safety at the facility if made public.

But Liberty said the policy prohibits headlocks or any other restraints involving the person’s head, neck or spine. He also said officers are only allowed to use the prone restraint as a “transitional move,” and they should immediately put the person on their side once they are restrained. Officers get eight hours of training every year on the use of force, he said, but the department is looking at whether they need more.

The population at Long Creek has nearly doubled this summer, and Liberty said that surge has included an increase in youths who are considered high risk. They are charged with more serious crimes, and they also have greater need for behavioral intervention or mental health services. Last week, 41 juveniles were detained or committed at Long Creek. Thirty-four, more than 80 percent, were classified as high risk. The commissioner didn’t provide a specific reason for that trend but said courts are more active than they were earlier in the pandemic.

Advocates have long called for the closure of Long Creek, but the prison has come under additional scrutiny in recent years in the wake of a suicide at the facility and the activism of Maine Youth Justice.

In 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy completed its first review at Long Creek. The organization found that the prison was chronically understaffed and not equipped to handle the serious mental health needs of the young people there. The result was dangerous and harmful conditions, as well as inappropriate uses of force. One of the recommendations in that report was for administrators to explicitly prohibit restraints 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 with a focus on non-physical strategies.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Maine created a task force to improve its juvenile justice system and asked the center to conduct another sweeping review that was published last year. Their work included a data analysis on youth in custody between June 2018 and May 2019. Among the key takeaways was that 53 percent of the young people detained at Long Creek that year did not pose any public safety risk. Instead, they could not go home for any number of reasons, like absent parents or their mental health needs, and alternative placements did not have room for them.

The report included a host of recommendations to reduce incarceration, like expanding restorative justice programs and crisis-bed capacity. The center found a need for a limited secure detention capacity for young people who pose a significant danger to others, as well as secure psychiatric residential treatment capacity for those with serious mental health problems. The last goal on the long list is: “Achieve removal of all youth from Long Creek.”

The Department of Corrections has since created an action plan to reduce secure confinement for juveniles, which included moving $6 million from the $18 million budget for Long Creek to open two transitional homes for youths leaving lockup. Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have closed Long Creek by 2023, saying it did not do enough to address public safety needs, but her budget incorporates language from another that asks the department to find locations for smaller “secure, therapeutic residences” that could eventually replace the prison.

Lindsay Crete, Mills’ spokeswoman, said the governor is aware of the recent incidents at Long Creek and supports the actions the department has taken.

“Her administration remains committed to that end and is implementing the juvenile justice system reforms she signed into law earlier this year, which include identifying community-based secure residences for juveniles that will help reduce the use of institutional confinement, and expanding options for mental health treatment and rehabilitative services in order to reduce the population at Long Creek,” Crete wrote in an email.

Liberty said the department will continue with its plan to reduce the reliance of secure confinement for young people in Maine.

“We can do this well, or we can do it quick,” Liberty said. “We can’t do both.”

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