Damning report finds serious issues with youth prison

From understaffing to suicides, youth are underserved in juvenile justice system

By Christopher Zoukis

The Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland Maine has deep roots — 165-year-old ones. The center’s first iteration was as the Boys Training Centre in 1853, when it functioned as a rehabilitation facility for young male offenders.

In 1976 it rebranded as the Maine Youth Centre, and adult male and female offenders were both accepted into its program. It later underwent another change to the name it carries today, and now Long Creek boasts a “multi-disciplined team approach” to rehabilitation, and lists its services as care, custody and security for its residents, holds for court evaluations/diagnostic services, education, physical education and recreation, volunteer services, social services, worship services, and medical services for its juvenile offender population.

Some, however, beg to differ.

As 2017 drew to a close, an independent audit of the Long Creek facility was conducted by the Centre for Children’s Law and Policy – and the results were not encouraging. “Staffing shortages, coupled with the severe mental health problems of youth, have led to a number of dangerous and harmful conditions and practices,” was just one of the harsh observations in the report.

According to the findings, Long Creek Youth Development Centre’s ratio of staff to mentally ill teens is too low, and the staff worked a collective 5,400 hours of overtime during the first nine months of 2017. Despite highly trained staff and the best intentions, the understaffing and crushing workload created insurmountable obstacles in the proper care and security of the young inmates. Supervision was lacking, leading to the inability to create a safe environment for both the youth and the staff. Training was lacking among the staff to help them deal with the severe and complex levels of mental health issues the youth presented, and safe spaces for the inmates’ LGBTQ population were not functioning. Special education programs were not up to par. In 2017, 85 percent of the inmates had three or more mental health conditions, but psychiatric care was limited. Long Creek also has a disproportionately high suicide rate.

Who are the youth behind bars at the Long Creek facility? Out-of-control teens? Little lords of the drug world? Teenaged assassins?

Not hardly.

Most of the incarcerated youth are behind bars for the crimes of theft, disorderly conduct and the use of offensive words, and for violating the protocols of their re-entry into society. And some of the inmates are as young as 11.

Is prison where children — 11-year-olds are still in elementary schools — really belong? Science tells us that adolescent brains are not even finished developing. An adult has the benefit of a fully formed prefrontal cortex, where impulse control, logic and reasoning take place. Teens and pre-teens seem more impulsive and prone to bad decision making because they actually are. While their bodies are nearly fully developed, their brains are playing catch up. Those formative years are when positive reinforcement, safety, security, education and good role models are vital.

Young adults that are locked in facilities that mimic the harsh realities of adult prisons, and where staffing and educational and mental health programs are lacking, exhibit long-range side effects from the experience. According to a study entitled Unlocking Juvenile Corrections, about one-third of incarcerated youth will be back in jail within a few short years. This is not what “rehabilitation” should look like.

The Long Creek problem is not just a problem confined to this facility in Maine. It’s a problem that affects juvenile offender facilities from coast to coast. And to save lives and help reduce the mass incarceration of adults, it’s an issue that must be addressed with wide-reaching proactive, positive and effective solutions.

This article first appeared on Blogcritics.com.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.