It’s been nearly two weeks since Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick released a vague, two-sentence statement saying a resident at the Long Creek Youth Development Center was involved in an unspecified “incident” and that all action was being taken to deal with the situation.
Several days later, the Maine attorney general’s office confirmed that the death of a juvenile resident at Long Creek was under review by the state medical examiner. State officials, citing confidentiality laws, declined to release additional details.
But several sources have told Maine Public Radio that the resident was a transgender youth under suicide watch who was being bullied. And that is raising grave concerns for advocacy groups and others about conditions and policies at the facility.
On Nov. 2, Long Creek Superintendent Jeffrey Merrill sent a letter to Long Creek volunteers.
“It is with a heavy heart,” he wrote, “that on Wednesday, November 1st, a female resident lost her life to suicide.”
Merrill went on to say that Long Creek was doing everything it could to support staff and residents during a difficult time. According to the Long Creek website, there are 163 residents at Long Creek and 195 staff.
“You know, the death was tragic. It was unexpected and hurt a lot — hurt a lot of people and broke a lot of hearts,” says a Long Creek resident.
The resident says there was a memorial service which he and others attended.
“Her mother came in and she delivered this great speech and you wouldn’t even have known that she was going through the tragic stuff that she was going through. It was inspiring,” he says.
Two people who work at Long Creek say the resident who committed suicide was a transgender youth who identified as male. They declined to talk on tape for fear of compromising their positions in the facility.
One source says the resident was upset that he was being housed with girls instead of boys. He’d been incarcerated since August and had apparently been placed on an active suicide watch, but it’s not clear for how long.
The same source also says there have been two other suicide attempts in the girls’ unit at Long Creek in the past six months. Current and former residents say the atmosphere at Long Creek is toxic.
“Right now in the girls’ unit that we have, there’s a lot of bullying. You know? Through residents and staff both. And I don’t think they understand how deep their words hurt a person and how it affects them. It hurts,” says a teen who was recently released from Long Creek after serving two and a half years there.
The teen says he was aware the transgender resident was being harassed.
“I seen the person around. And there’s other kids that usually kind of made fun of that person,” he says.
When asked whether girls or boys made fun of the transgender resident, the teen says, “Sometimes both, but mostly the guys. I kind of ignored it. And there’s one time I heard that she looked like Thing One and Thing Two from Dr. Seuss and it was kind of like depressing when I heard that.”
“We’re deeply concerned about the death of this youth, this trans youth at Long Creek, and we want to make sure that Long Creek is adequately meeting the needs of LGBTQ plus and particularly transgender youth through its policies and procedures,” says Polly Crozier, a senior staff attorney with GLAD, a Boston-based legal advocacy group for the LGBTQ community.
Crozier says GLAD has heard complaints from other LGBTQ youth at Long Creek about discrimination and mistreatment. Research suggests that 20 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system identify as LGBTQ, which is almost three times the number in the general population. And Crozier says they are at increased risk of suicide, especially in institutional settings where they can experience hostility and harassment.
Among other things, she wants to make sure that transgender youth at Long Creek are getting adequate care.
“There’s a medical consensus that medical care for transgender youth should be gender affirming. It goes from medical care to housing assessments to ensuring LGBTQ competent mental health resources, staff training. We just want to make sure the care is meeting their needs and ensuring their safety,” Crozier says.
Both GLAD and the ACLU of Maine say they’ll ask Maine’s attorney general to investigate the adequacy of medical care, assessments and housing for transgender youth as well as mental health resources for all youth at Long Creek.
The ACLU’s legal director, Zach Heiden, says he hopes it will lead to a review of all care and services available to transgender prisoners in Maine.
“The Constitution requires prisons to protect prisoners from deliberate indifference to harm and to serious medical needs. Prisons have a constitutional obligation to ensure that prisoners are kept safe. We’re concerned that that did not happen here,” he says.
The Maine Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment for this story.