Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Residents at Maine’s only youth prison caused significant property damage to the facility last month and have been held in frequent 23-hour lockdowns that their attorneys say have seriously limited their ability to help their clients.

Lawyers say they were told the lockdowns are tied to worsening staffing shortages. A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections, which operates the Long Creek Youth Development Center, refused to discuss the recent unrest and specific questions about lockdowns and staffing levels.

Multiple juvenile defense attorneys said there have been at least two incidents at Long Creek since December and at least one resident was pepper-sprayed, but the lawyers said they didn’t know enough specifics to describe what happened or why.

At the same time, attorneys and advocates say young residents have been complaining about increased lockdowns, particularly during weekends, that are prompted by staffing issues.

Juvenile criminal defense lawyers are scheduled to meet with a district judge in Portland Wednesday afternoon to discuss the “current conditions at (Long Creek) and access to appropriate community services for juveniles and families.”

A courthouse clerk said the meeting will not be open to the public. But many of the concerns raised in a memo obtained by the Press Herald echo those that lawyers shared this week.


About half of the 34 youths currently being held at Long Creek have pending criminal cases, the state says. So they are regularly called to attend court hearings (often via Zoom) and meet with attorneys who are supposed to help them understand the cases against them.

But with recent lockdowns and ongoing staffing shortages, attorneys say providing those essential services has become more difficult.

Some attorneys say their clients have not been allowed to attend court hearings in person. Others want to be able to sit beside their clients at Long Creek and call into a hearing together via Zoom, the way attorneys used to sit beside their clients in a courtroom before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jenna Zawislak, left, and Leslie Wilson, lawyers with the Maine Indigent Defense Center, say they have limited access to their juvenile clients at Long Creek because of frequent lockdowns. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Some attorneys say they are having a hard time accessing information that’s later used against them in detention in hearings. And many lawyers say they have less in-person access to their clients at Long Creek than they do in adult jails, where older clients have regularly scheduled visiting hours.

“There’s no way a lawyer can adequately represent a client without having contact with them,” said Sharon Craig, a juvenile defense attorney in southern Maine. “Even if it’s staffing – they need to figure out a way to make it work.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said in a written statement that staff “go to great lengths” to meet all of these requests, but it depends on staffing and safety concerns. The department would not directly answer a question about whether residents are on 23-hour lockdowns over weekends, saying “The only residents who are not allowed to leave their rooms for extended periods of time are those who are on observation status in the Special Management Unit – the highest security level.”


Researchers have consistently found that holding minors in prolonged isolation is detrimental to their mental health.


Long Creek has struggled with staffing shortages for years. The attorneys who spoke with the Press Herald said they’ve been told by the corrections department that this is why their clients are being put into lockdown more frequently.

The department would not provide a specific number of employees and vacancies Tuesday and said the information would be included in an upcoming report to lawmakers. As of late 2022, the facility was running at about half-staff, with 30 of almost 60 positions vacant, and they were struggling to attract workers.

It’s not the first time the facility has been in the spotlight for outbursts that many said were caused by a lack of staff. In 2021, state lawmakers were briefed on seven incidents in which Long Creek residents caused $160,000 in damage over two months that summer.

That fall, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that those incidents were the result of boredom, chronic staffing shortages and a “counterproductive” tendency to over-punish young residents. The center advised involving mental health clinicians more when behavioral issues arise and addressing low staffing levels.


That was the third time that center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on juvenile justice reform, was paid to analyze the juvenile justice system in Maine. It echoed a similar report in 2017 that found criminally charging youth only drives their involvement deeper into the system, when their behaviors are usually the result of “unmet mental health need or disability.”

“It just feels a little bit like Groundhog Day,” said Atlee Reilly, an attorney with Disability Rights Maine. “You’re just struck by how long are we going to keep trying the same things and expect a different result.”

The nonprofit regularly visits Long Creek and meets with residents. Reilly said the group last visited Long Creek on Jan. 17 and is planning to go again next week.

Long Creek has been trapped in a standstill between state leaders pushing for its closure and those who still believe is is a necessary part of Maine’s juvenile justice system.

Lawmakers tried to close Long Creek in 2021, but Gov. Janet Mills vetoed the legislation saying it would take away Maine’s only secure facility for criminally charged youth who represent a risk to themselves or others.



Attorneys say the lockdown issues are part of a broader issue of accessing information for their cases.

Jenna Zawislak and Leslie Wilson said they were in court for a juvenile client’s detention hearing last week when they were told their client was involved in an incident at Long Creek on Jan. 28. They said prosecutors brought the allegation up as a reason to keep their client behind bars.

Zawislak and Wilson said this is common; they often find out about behavior issues when they’re already in front of a judge. They say they’re often not given the full picture or discovery materials to fully respond to the allegations.

“You’re told it as you’re walking into court,” Wilson said.

“That’s a due process violation in my mind,” Zawislak said. “If it’s my job to argue for the release of this client, I need to have all information that is extremely relevant to that. If they’re going to be using information that could potentially hold them longer and deny their liberty longer, I need access to that information. It’s just frustrating.”

Zawislak said all of these access issues are frustrating because she doesn’t believe it’s in a young client’s best interest for them to be incarcerated. And with staffing shortages, the experience is even worse.

“They’re trying to communicate something to us, and our job is to figure out what they’re communicating to us,” Zawislak said. “And it’s hard to do that when you can’t build a rapport and you can’t see them as much, and they feel forgotten. It’s frustrating.”

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