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Maine kids in youth prison are often locked in cells because of staff shortages

SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE -- 10/20/22 -- Lights shine on the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland on Thursday night, Oct. 20, 2022. The center is Maine's only youth prison.
Troy R. Bennett
SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE -- 10/20/22 -- Lights shine on the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland on Thursday night, Oct. 20, 2022. The center is Maine's only youth prison.

The deepening staffing crisis at Maine’s only youth prison has grown so dire that teens are routinely locked in their cells during the day because there aren’t enough workers to supervise them, according to labor and watchdog groups.

The lockdowns disrupt school and other programs and services for kids at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and raises concern about the potential harm caused by more frequent periods of isolation.

“I’ve spoken to teachers and they’re basically saying that the educational component, which is really critical for these kids, has been strained to a level where they are really struggling to provide the kinds of support that these kids really need,” said Dean Staffieri, president of the Maine Service Employees Association, which represents the prison’s teachers and supervisors.

The news marked the latest symptoms of a long-running staffing crisis at Long Creek repeatedly linked to unsafe conditions, most recently last summer, when a streak of violent clashes erupted between guards and teens.

“It doesn’t ever get easier to hear about these conditions,” said Ali Ali, director of advocacy for Maine Youth Justice, a youth-led campaign to close Long Creek. “These kids need treatment and recovery and it’s only getting worse.”

Long Creek recently underwent a leadership shakeup and officials have pledged to tackle the problem by hiring more guards and boosting pay. But mediocre wages, grueling hours and difficult working conditions have made it hard for the state to hire and retain people, especially during a broader workforce shortage, union officials said. Many advocates believe the youth prison cannot be fixed. Staffieri called it “a tinderbox that could blow at any point.”

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections disputed the characterization that conditions at Long Creek have not improved over the last year or that kids are routinely locked in their cells.

There have been “limited occasions” when low staffing levels have triggered the need for youth to go to their living units or their rooms, said Anna Black, the department’s director of government affairs.

They are not routine, and when they happen, kids can still leave for things like health appointments, visits, showers and recreation, she said.

“Education may be delivered in a modified format during this time — for example, with a teacher in unit rather than in their classroom — but education is never compromised,” Black said.

But two union representatives said lockdowns are “regular occurrences.” Earlier this month, kids were reportedly locked in their rooms for five out of seven days, Staffieri said.

They are common enough that youth complained about the practice in late September to lawyers with Disability Rights Maine, a legal advocacy firm with oversight power over Long Creek, that they were increasingly locked in their cells during the day for varying lengths of time and regularly for at least half of the day on weekends, typically Saturdays, legal director Atlee Reilly said.

“When we raised concerns about this to facility administration, they confirmed that they were using lockdowns due to inadequate staffing levels, especially on the weekends,” he said.

The state currently pays about $12 million a year to incarcerate 27 kids at Long Creek, most of whom have complex histories of mental illness and trauma. In June, the U.S. Department of Justice warned that the state has been unnecessarily jailing kids with disabilities at Long Creek due to a lack of mental health alternatives, in violation of their federal rights.

As of Oct. 14, lockdowns had interfered with at least seven days of school since the fall semester began, Reilly said. For comparison, Maine students beyond the sixth grade are considered truant when they incur more than 10 unexcused absences from school in an entire school year.

After last summer’s spate of violence, a December 2021 report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy urged Long Creek to beef programming and add more structure to the day after finding that kids were lashing out to get their needs met. It called the chronic staff shortage “toxic” to the prison’s operations. The firm previously warned against the overuse of room confinement in a 2017 report because the practice can worsen mental health issues and lead to self-harm.

“When you lock kids up, they will do anything they can do to get out,” Ali said. “I’ve been out for eight years and still it’s very difficult to get through the day without ever thinking about being encapsulated in these isolated rooms, these dungeons, I’ll call it.”

Youth also told lawyers that some lockdowns are instituted as “group punishment” after a single kid misbehaves, a practice that consultants have previously warned the prison to stop. Black denied that was happening at Long Creek.

Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill in 2021 that would have closed Long Creek by 2023 and required the state to set up more therapeutic, community-based alternatives. Instead, she supported a bill that, among other things, directed officials to find locations for smaller secure correctional facilities around the state.

That process is ongoing, but meanwhile it’s normal for Long Creek staff to work 16-hour shifts, for two or three days in a row, according to Jim Durkin, the legislative director for AFSCME 93, the union that represents guards. At times, the prison has even called in corrections officers who typically work in adult facilities, he said. Staff often work in fear that violence could erupt at any minute, and feel demoralized that staffing issues get in the way of their desire to help kids, Staffieri added.

“They are not seeing the cavalry coming in to help. Is Long Creek lying in wait for the next disaster to happen?” Staffieri said.

After last summer’s disturbances, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told lawmakers in January that the department had a plan to recruit and retain more staff at Long Creek. The department hired a full-time recruiter, increased base wages by $1, piloted a $9 increase for staff who volunteered for overtime and were looking for recruitment opportunities among Maine’s growing immigrant community, among other initiatives, he said.

Still, nine months later, Long Creek needs to hire about 20 more guards, Durkin said. The prison is now starting guards at a higher pay rate than typical entry-level wage, but the bump has only gone from $19.36 an hour to $20.80 an hour. When the maximum pay rate is $24.47, there isn’t much room to grow, he said.

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.