This holiday season marks another year of unconventional celebrations as we enter 2022 still battling the pandemic. Many families are creating plans to celebrate separately, but for families with young people currently incarcerated, the separation is an everyday occurrence. I’ve missed holidays, birthdays and other life events because I was incarcerated when I was 15.

I know how much time spent in a youth prison like Long Creek Youth Development Center traumatizes young people, causing them to be disconnected from their families and communities, hindering their education and creating often-unnecessary juvenile court records. Many of the kids inside Long Creek face abusive families, drugs, alcohol use, homelessness and built-up aggression, and the staff just expects them to change by themselves. There is no support. There is no help.

Maine’s young people and teenagers belong with their loved ones, getting the mental health and social support they need to be healthy and happy individuals. Youth prisons are inhumane and ineffective at keeping young people or communities any safer. Fortunately, it does not have to be this way.

Long Creek has proven time and time again it is no place for youth. Just this month, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that Long Creek failed to address dangerous conditions that were identified years ago and led to a series of violent incidents between the young people and staff. In September, multiple members of the administration at Long Creek, including the superintendent and the head of security, were ousted over the mishandling of at least six incidents of guards using “prone restraints,” an incredibly dangerous practice that was previously flagged by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. These latest reports are just iterations of many others published during the last few years, highlighting the immoral, cruel and often legally gray tactics used to punish children inside Long Creek.

Young people and their families have zero confidence that the Maine Department of Corrections will keep them safe. They have done nothing but create cycles of trauma and put our community’s kids at increased risk. Even with all of this evidence proving how Long Creek and MDOC has continued to fail young people in our state, they continue to protect their own instead of doing what is right: Numerous staff involved in the prone-restraints debacle were simply reassigned to other positions with MDOC.

Most Mainers agree that youth prisons are not the answer: Fifty-nine percent support closing existing and abstaining from building new youth prisons for a more individualized approach to youth justice, focused on each child’s circumstances, and 83 percent support changing the system so that incarceration is not the default response for youth in the justice system.

This past year’s fight to pass L.D. 1668 only proved the support for closing Long Creek and reinvesting the full $18.4 million yearly operating cost into community-led programs that support young people’s growth through job training, mental health supports and community-based housing services. Gov. Mills’ veto of the bill is only another example of our local leaders’ pattern of pumping more money into police departments and prisons instead of investing in community programs, housing and education, to combat the root causes.

As a new parent, I cherish every day with my family, especially the holidays, and I want to be sure my children do not face what I went through as a young adult. You can only imagine the feeling of disconnectedness and abandonment that I felt while incarcerated, especially during the holiday season. Instead of continuing to overinvest in a clearly broken and harmful system, we must pivot toward a future without youth incarceration and with a deep investment in a continuum of community-based care. Closing Long Creek is the first and most crucial step to getting these kids home for the holidays – and every day in between – with the proper care and support they need.

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