Members of Maine Youth Justice, a campaign to end youth incarceration, are calling on a state task force to recommend closing the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland by next year. On Tuesday morning they rallied outside the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta, where the task force was scheduled to meet. But that option is currently not among those being proposed to reform Maine's juvenile justice system.
Chanting "Why are we raging? Kids in cages!" more than 60 teens and young adults from across Maine say they showed up for a rally and press conference outside the court house because the time has come to close Maine's only youth prison.
"Today we are here speaking on behalf of the youth that couldn't make it, the youth that are locked up and unable to see anybody," said Adan Abdikadir, a youth organizer from Lewiston.
"We are here to send a message to the governor: We want this place closed and we will never stop until it is," Abdikadir said. "We will be back here every single year chanting, and we will get bigger and bigger and bigger. There will be no way in this building next year."
Currently, there are just under 50 kids held at Long Creek. That's down from a high of 300 several years ago. But activists say a disproportionate number - about 30% - are youth of color and they're most likely to be locked up for non-violent offenses.
In addition, they say, it costs just over $18 million a year to incarcerate them. Instead, campaign director Al Cleveland says, that money could be reinvested in community-based programs like emergency housing and mental health counseling with better outcomes for youth.
"The most important part of our campaign is investing in the continuum of care that young people need," Cleveland said. "There are no community programs and there's not nearly enough teen centers or teen shelters to serve young people. And that's what we're saying we need to invest in, and we actually have a pool of money that we can do it from - it's the $18-million that's keeping Long Creek open."
Established last year, the juvenile justice task force was charged with developing recommendations for a continuum of community-based alternatives to incarceration for system-involved youth and for those at risk for becoming involved in the justice system.
Corrections Commissioner and task force member Randall Liberty says the recommendations to the Legislature include money for diversion programs and transitional housing but not the closure of Long Creek.
"You know, we believe, and every state has some number of institutional confinement for youth for public safety," Liberty says. "It is our goal to reduce those numbers, though."
Maine Youth Justice has its own list of proposed recommendations to reform the juvenile justice system, including the elimination of school resource officers and the end of what they call the "school-to-prison" pipeline through school suspensions and expulsions.
Six years ago, Anthony Alfreds of Portland says he found himself at Long Creek after committing petty thefts, smoking pot, skipping school and violating his probation. He was detained for eight months before he even went to court, he says, and then incarcerated for a year while his father was gravely ill.
"I went to go see him in the hospital," he recalls. "I asked one favor - I'm 17 years old, my brain's not developed - I didn't know what was going on. They would not let my shackles off to hug my dad while he was dying."
When he got back to the youth center, Alfreds says, no one ever asked him how he was feeling or what he needed. Now that he's able to advocate for others through the Maine Youth Justice campaign Alfreds says he has a purpose and finally feels empowered.
Originally published Feb. 26, 2020 at 6:07 a.m. ET.