The state’s top corrections official said he has moved swiftly to reinvest in training, staffing and new approaches at Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only juvenile lockup, after seven episodes of violence last summer in which youths caused considerable damage to the facility.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty delivered his progress report to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday in the wake of the release last month a study of the violence by outside experts who found that the persistent shortage of corrections officers and teachers created a toxic environment with incarcerated youths left to their own devices without engagement from adults.

There appeared to be little movement on building a new and smaller secure facility to incarcerate youth who have been sentenced by a judge for committing serious crimes. The department has identified 18 potential locations, Liberty said, but still must convene a working group to take a closer look, a process that will take months longer.

Building Long Creek’s successor facility will be challenging, Liberty said. He said he envisions a softer, more home-like setting, where a smaller number of residents will live while they receive treatment and rehabilitation. Some will be able to attend school and participate in extracurricular sports or therapy outside the facility, while others will be more restricted in their movements.

He said one template –and a potential partner agency – is Good Will-Hinckley, a 130-year-old nonprofit in Hinckley that already offers residential treatment and education to youth with complicated learning needs and behavioral problems. He said he faced tough questions during a recent meeting with the nonprofit’s executive team.

Would the nonprofit staff have a say in who might be admitted to the state program? Could Good Will-Hinckley walk away after a trial period if things didn’t go well? Would  the building resemble a fortress with concertina wire? What stress would that put on other local services in the area? Would nearby residents object?

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“That will be the case anywhere we go,” Liberty said. “Any community will raise those questions and we’ll have to find a way to mitigate that.”

HIRINGS ADDRESS STAFFING ISSUES

Liberty said the department has moved to address many of the concerns identified in the report by the Children’s Center for Law and Policy, whose researchers said at the time of their examination in the fall that there were 15 open correction officer positions and five teacher vacancies at the in-house A.R. Gould School, in addition to an unspecified number of open administrative and management jobs. Liberty said the department has hired 15 people since December, including clinicians, corrections officers and social workers.

As of this week, there were 16 vacant corrections positions, one vacant corrections manager job and four open school positions. Anna Black, a spokesperson for the department, downplayed the openings, saying they may not be filled because of the low number of young people in residence at Long Creek. Black did not respond to a question about how many employees are required to consider the facility fully staffed.

“This is a nationwide problem in corrections, business and government,” Liberty said. “Throughout the economy, we’re having staffing shortages.”

Advocates for youth have called for the facility to be shut down, and nearly got their way last year when a bill to mandate the closure passed both houses of the Legislature. But it was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

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Today, there are 27 youths 14 to 19 years old in a facility built to house 164 people, Liberty said. Twenty of the young people are serving sentences for serious crimes, including manslaughter, gross sexual assault and aggravated assault.

The remaining seven are detained temporarily, mostly awaiting placement for treatment, counseling or other programs to address their needs as directed by a judge, Liberty said.

Statewide, eight young people currently are being reintegrated into the community after a stint at Long Creek. There are 64 others on probation, and 155 more on informal adjustment status, the lowest level of involvement with the criminal legal system for youth.

PROGRAMS REINSTATED

To alleviate boredom and increase supervision, Liberty restarted the visitor program and volunteer services, both shuttered for a long stretch of the pandemic. There are new pay and overtime incentives to keep staff from quitting and to entice them to take voluntary overtime shifts, he said.

A system for youth to earn more privileges has been revamped with an eye toward providing clear expectations and fairness and citing good progress instead of calling out failures, Liberty said. Juvenile correction officers no longer punish groups of residents for the behavior of one person, and staff have been retrained on de-escalation, the proper use of force, conflict resolution and restorative justice, where the focus is to repair harms through a structured process of communication between perpetrators and victims.

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Juvenile probation officers, who usually work with youth in the community, are being redirected to help out at Long Creek to increase the staff to resident ratio.

A new superintendent, Lynne Allen, starts work in February, and a newly hired associate commissioner of corrections, Christine Thibeault, a longtime juvenile prosecutor, is working to find more placement options for youths who need treatment, and to close the gaps in how families receive aid of all kinds when a young person gets in trouble with police – from helping to buy a young person athletic cleats to placing a family in temporary housing.

Liberty said he has also revamped the training for new juvenile corrections staff, who for the first time in state history will be offered a curriculum focused on young people. In the past, the training for juvenile and adult corrections was the same, he said. Those standards will go before the Criminal Justice Academy’s board of trustees in March for review and approval.

To help retain staff, the department instituted a $1-per-hour raise and launched a six-month pilot program to offer an additional $9-per-hour stipend for overtime – to encourage staff to sign up for extra shifts, rather than be forced.

PEPPER SPRAY WILL STILL BE USED

But Liberty refused to move on at least one high-profile recommendation in the report, to end the use of pepper spray.

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“My policy is if I need to use … spray for safety of staff and residents, I will,” Liberty said. “I do not want to. (During the disturbances) there were youth that were in the units that had weapons, and as I’m there and I’m asking my officers to secure them, I have to give them the tools to be successful and to be safe.”

He did not eliminate the use of prone restraints – when someone is held face-down with their hands behind their back – for transitional moments between when an officer first takes control of someone on the ground and when the person is brought up to a sitting or standing position. Experts have found that prone restraints are dangerous and can lead to serious injury or death if pressure on someone’s torso prevents them from breathing.

After the hearing, an advocacy group, Maine Youth Justice, called again for the closure of Long Creek.

“Maine’s young people deserve better, which is why we’re calling for funds to be reinvested into restorative justice organizations to enrich communities, instead of perpetuating the incarceration of young people,” the group said in a written statement. “Youth incarceration traumatizes youth and costs the state millions with no benefit to public safety. Maine must treat its youngest generation with the care and services they need by investing into community resources like housing and mental health services – not prisons like Long Creek.”

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, a former police officer and chief, said the progress by Liberty’s team was commendable during difficult circumstances. Pickett said he toured the facility last year, which helped him get a better feel for the violence that unfolded and the situation now.

“I think you guys have done a tremendous job of answering the call and taking these things seriously and bringing the staff and other things at the facility up to snuff,” Pickett said during the meeting. “I saw the table legs that were used as potential weapons against the guards. I also saw the aftermath of the damage that was done on that day, and it wasn’t done by young kids. It was done by young men.”

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DISAPPOINTED BY LACK OF PROGRESS

Committee co-chair Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said she expected more progress toward building a new facility and closing Long Creek. In an interview after the session, Warren said the state has paid the same consultants three times for the same advice it refuses to follow.

“Child prisons are not fixable,” Warren said. “Child prisons are needed when you don’t have the community-based supports that these children need and require. And there’s obviously a whole group of people who don’t have the political will to provide (those supports). So you get this system, a system that many other states have moved away from.”

The facility is a costly, hulking remnant of a different time, she said, and the state has paid the same group to issue three reports since 2017 that recommend the same policy reforms.  Small, community-based services, they have said, are more effective at helping young people and lead to better outcomes than centralized incarceration.

“There are a certain number of youth who need to be in a secure facility,” Warren said. “They don’t need to be in a facility of that size and in that way. You can do secure without inhumane. You can do secure without SWAT teams. You can do secure without (using pepper spray). It’s just whether you want to or not.”


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