The Portland Phoenix

Emptying the ‘pods’

Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Sometime during the 2020 legislative session, the future of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland may be decided. It’s the last remaining place in Maine where juveniles are incarcerated, and its status has been hotly debated in recent years.

When the old Maine Youth Center on the same site closed in 1998, it was housing more than 250 youths in conditions a former associate corrections commissioner called “abysmal,” with physical restraints a routine part of maintaining control.

It was replaced, during the administration of then-Gov. Angus King, by two facilities: Long Creek, and Mountain View in Charleston, with a combined capacity of about 300. Restraints disappeared, and Long Creek was viewed as a national model.

Attitudes about incarceration change, however. 

Over the past 20 years, national studies showing the disastrous effects of locking up young people, who often cycle in and out of jails and prisons for decades afterward, has led to wide-scale diversion of young offenders. 

As Maine goes?

Hundreds of youth prisons have closed, and Maine may be ahead of the curve, said Associate Corrections Commissioner Colin O’Neill, a licensed clinical social worker who now oversees the juvenile and adult community systems.

Mountain View closed in 2015, with its nine detainees transferred to Long Creek; the South Portland buildings, licensed to hold 164 juveniles with 198 staff, had just 58 in early November, divided about evenly between those detained temporarily, and those committed for an indefinite term.

Maine state Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, is co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. (Portland Phoenix/Douglas Rooks)

Emptying the “pods” at Long Creek has led to sharply different assessments of what comes next. 

Criminal justice reform advocates – who include state Reps. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, co-chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, a first-term committee member whose district includes Long Creek – say it’s time to prepare for closing.

Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty, however, foresees a different use. He’d like to transfer 100 adult female prisoners from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham to Long Creek, as part of a complete rebuilding of the Windham campus financed by a $149 million bond issued through the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority.

The bond, while believed to be the work of former Gov. Paul LePage, was actually the culmination of many previously unsuccessful attempts to modernize the aging institution.

“(LePage) told us we’d never get the money,” O’Neill said. “ I was as shocked as anyone when we did.”

Remaking a prison

The Windham project represents a rare opportunity to completely remake a state prison. It’s comparable to King’s efforts to close the old state prison in Thomaston, which had housed prisoners for almost two centuries when it closed in 2002 and was replaced by a mammoth new prison in Warren that can house more than 1,000 prisoners.

The inclusion of Long Creek in the Windham plan, however, has had tough sledding at the Legislature.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty.

Liberty said women could continue to be housed at Windham – which also has the only pre-release center for females – but doing so would cost $20 million in a project facing budget constraints, thanks to delays and rising construction costs.

The contrasting approaches are incorporated into two bills: LD 1723, a department proposal to authorize the transfer of female inmates, and LD 1108, sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, which would commission a task force to recommend closing Long Creek by 2022. While both bills have been carried over, the task force is now meeting, and expected to report early in the session.

What comes next?

An irony is that the Long Creek dilemma was created by the success the Department of Corrections has had in diverting young offenders into community programs. It closed Mountain View – now an adult pre-release facility – and sharply downsized Long Creek. Those results are applauded by both sides, but they differ sharply about what comes next.

“This is a valuable building for the department, and they don’t want to lose it,” Warren said. “But it doesn’t make sense to keep a building that costs so much to operate and still doesn’t meet the needs of the kids there.” 

Because staffing has been reduced only slightly, the cost per juvenile is high – between $250,000 and $300,000 a year per. “We could spend that money better elsewhere,” she said.

Warren would like to see incarceration used far more sparingly for adults, too, and O’Neill admits there hasn’t been nearly as much progress, although he and Commissioner Liberty both consider themselves criminal justice reform advocates. 

One difference, O’Neill said, is that the state completely controls access to the juvenile facility, while prosecutors and judges end up, through sentencing, scattering inmates throughout the state system and 15 county jails.

Empty beds

There are many empty beds now. Liberty estimates 600 in the county jails, yet Penobscot County has an overcrowded jail and proposed a new facility that would hold 250. As of Nov. 12, the state is housing more than 2,200 prisoners, with 388 “available beds” and a capacity of just over 2,600. Yet Liberty wants to replace all the male inmate beds at Windham, plus a net increase of about a dozen beds.

Before being selected as commissioner by Gov. Janet Mills, Liberty, a former Kennebec County sheriff, was appointed by LePage as warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren. Liberty introduced and expanded many programs there, including college degrees offered through the University of Maine at Augusta.

He inherited the Windham project, and stands behind it. Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, tried to introduce a new bill for more money for Windham, but the Legislative Council rejected it. Liberty now says the budget is “exactly right,” and the project will go ahead whether or not the transfer of female inmates wins legislative approval.

For Warren, the department’s plans cross the boundaries between adult and juvenile correction law, without solving the dilemma of finding appropriate treatment for young people in both the criminal justice system and mental health system.

Caroline Raymond, Long Creek superintendent, said the transfer is feasible because “sight and sound” separation between adult women and juveniles could be achieved.

Warren is skeptical, both of the Long Creek transfer, and of the need for so many new beds in Windham. 

Smaller is better

Her view on prison capacity is, “If you build it, they will fill it.” She also said that with secure confinement needed for only half a dozen juveniles at Long Creek – the department says closer to a dozen – it would be better, and cheaper, to build a much smaller facility elsewhere.

But O’Neill said it’s naive to think one can simply close down Maine’s last secure facility. And if a new facility costs $20 million, “Isn’t that money that could better be used in community programs?”

That’s another point on which there’s broad agreement between those seeking to shut down Long Creek, and those who want to keep it open. O’Neill said at least a third of those now incarcerated would get better treatment in community mental health centers, but there’s no room.

Community mental health has long been a weak link. 

During the LePage administration, funding and reimbursements were repeatedly cut, and some nonprofit agencies closed group homes and treatment centers. Even with a new administration, downsizing continues. Sweetser – a major provider – recently announced it would close five clinics serving 450 people. It cited inadequate state reimbursement.

Morales takes a broader approach to issues surrounding youthful lawbreakers. “It starts very early in life,” she said.

The school connection

As an attorney who specializes in juvenile cases, she said she ran for the Legislature in part because she wanted to apply her knowledge. Extreme poverty and poor attendance in schools are strongly correlated with juvenile offenses, she said, and “the most accurate predictor is suspension from school.” 

South Portland state Rep. Victoria Morales.

Morales believes schools must realize that sending students home for disciplinary reasons may only compound their problems, especially in unstable homes.

A project Morales worked on for years, funded through grants in 2012, is the Maine Youth Court. Available to any offender from Portland to Bath, the court is part of the diversion system that keeps young people out of Long Creek. Over six years, the court has heard 600 cases involving 800 young people, many with behavioral issues and substance use problems. 

“It’s often a lot harder for them to go in front of a jury of their peers than it is to go in front of a judge,” Morales said.

While Morales acknowledged that managers and staff at Long Creek “are trying very hard” through the only system available, “It’s almost impossible to benefit children through therapy inside a maximum security facility where they can’t get out.”

Advocates and Long Creek officials agree that closing and conversion are feasible, but differ over how practical that would be. O’Neill said the pre-fabricated “pods” that make up most of the building are formed from pre-cast concrete, and would be hard to alter.

Warren agreed that conventional housing might not be possible, but said group settings might be feasible. “The biggest reason why prisoners aren’t released, both in the adult and juvenile system,” she said, “is that there’s no place for them to go, no place to live.”

Previous conversions on the same site – the old Maine Youth Center’s “Castle,” which still dominates the hilltop, and outlying cottages – might offer a clue. The Castle now houses offices, and, with the addition of new townhouses, there are 100 affordable apartments next to Long Creek. 

While reductions in incarceration at Long Creek are notable, Warren said it doesn’t paint the entire picture. Nearly 60 juvenile offenders with severe mental disorders are treated out of state. Since that’s the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services, it shows up in its budget, not the much smaller juvenile services account at the Department of Corrections.

Still, of $28 million annually, the state now spends about $17 million at Long Creek and $11 million on community programs. Advocates would like those totals reversed. While any closing plan may be years away, they think their case will only get stronger. 

“We have to always do what’s in the best interest of the child,” Morales said. “If we want to rehabilitate, if we want to reunite families, then we don’t need confinement for more than a very few.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, and editor of Maine Times. 

The case for closing

Advocacy for closing Long Creek has escalated, and has included lawsuits, reports from several national and Maine groups, calls from editorial writers – and growing interest at the Legislature. 

While no one has yet developed a detailed plan, which would have to include costs of a small secure unit and greatly enhanced community services, it has gained momentum.

Associate Corrections Commissioner Colin O’Neill.

Two incidents stand out. 

One is a pending federal lawsuit filed by ACLU of Maine in March 2018 on behalf of Sadiya Ali, who alleges her son “A.I.,” who was diagnosed in 2017 with severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, was beaten by officers who then didn’t seek immediate medical attention for A.I.’s injuries. He required “emergency dental treatment,” the lawsuit claims, but wasn’t treated for six days. The state contests the charges.

The other incident occurred the previous year. In November 2016, 16-year-old Charles Maise Knowles, a transgendered inmate on suicide watch, nonetheless took his own life while confined to his room. The Department of Corrections commissioned an independent report, which recommended that locked doors never be used where suicide precautions are indicated. It also prompted a 74-page report from the Center for Children’s Law and Policy that may be among the most detailed assessments ever made for a Maine correctional facility.

Associate Corrections Commissioner Colin O’Neill said the suicide “shook this institution to the core.” Superintendent Caroline Raymond added, “It could, and does, happen in almost any institution of this kind, unfortunately.” 

Not all tragedies can be prevented, Raymond said, but Long Creek is always open to change and improvement. 

— Douglas Rooks


 Long Creek snapshot

A tour of Long Creek, conducted by Superintendent Caroline Raymond, accompanied by Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty and Associate Commissioner Colin O’Neill, reveals an institution that’s orderly, with an almost clinical feel to bare walls, stark interior “pods,” and accompanying cells – about six-by-eight feet – with locked doors. 

Caroline Raymond, superintendent of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

There’s lots of harsh fluorescent lighting, and, in an isolation unit now rarely used, silence and empty space. 

In fact, it’s an institution with a lot of empty spaces, the product of major downsizing throughout Maine’s juvenile system. 

At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, almost no detainees are in sight; most of them are in classrooms. As in adult prisons, there are guards at command posts, many of them beefy young men who are soft-spoken and deferential to visitors.

We meet one 16-year-old inmate, a boy from Lewiston first detained at Long Creek when he was 11, who has been in and out at least eight times without finding a stable placement in a foster home. The tour leaders, briefly conferring, agree that he has displayed no violent tendencies, but he has issues with authority figures. They promise to put in a good word with his probation officer.

There is sunlight in some rooms, and outdoor recreation contrasting with the stark places where some juveniles may spend several years; unlike many states, confinement can extend to age 21, though it rarely does. The evidence shows juveniles rarely do well in such settings, but for many there’s no other place to go.

— Douglas Rooks

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