As part of our tour of Maine prisons and jails, some of us visited Long Creek Youth Development Center.  The facility in South Portland, houses up to 163 of Maine's juvenile offenders, including a small number of girls. 

Long Creek has a history of concerning reports about treatment of the youth within its care.  Amnesty International cited reports of dramatic overuse of solitary confinement and the restraint chair.  Since use of solitary confinement on even healthy adults is known to cause mental health problems where none previously existed, one can imagine that the effects of prolonged use of isolation are even worse for youth.  Since then, many changes have been made at the Center.  Administrators report they have attemped an overall culture shift - from a corrections facility model to a residential treatment facility model. 

This model seems to be a more appropriate approach - especially for youth offenders.  It also reflects research and best practice around what works to increase safety and reduce recidivism.  In March, the Maine Juvenile Justice Taskforce issued a report in which they point out that youth should be treated differently because they have not yet fully developed their decision making skills.  Brain scan studies that show that the part of the brain that controls impulses and exercises judgment doesn't become fully developed until about age 25. 

Young people make decisions from the emotional parts of their brain, and, therefore, will naturally "‘age out’ of the delinquent behavior of their younger years.”  But in the meantime, they say, adolescents often engage in activities of greater risk and are, therefore, less culpable for their actions.

Center staff and administrators report they now use isolation only in response to situations where the youth poses a danger to themselves or others - never as discipline - and only when other forms of deescalation have failed.  They also report trying to maximize opportunities for youth to socialize - both inside and outside the facility - in high school and college courses, sports teams, and other programming.

Despite initial concerns about how such changes would impact safety of staff and other youth, representatives of the Center report the culture shift has reduced recidivism, lowered rates of staff and youth injuries, resulted in fewer worker's compensation days, and less need for and use of restraint and seclusion.  In essence, they have found that increasing communication, reducing use of force, and teaching kids to make positive choices allows the youth to regain and maintain control more easily, translating into a safer, calmer environment for everyone.

Some other interesting information from our visit -

  • Between 15-20 percent of youth at the Center are youth of color or from minority communities, and 3/4 of those are immigrants or refugees.
  • Nationally, recidivism rates for youth are around 60%, whereas Maine reports 20-25% recidivism.
  • Youth held at the Center have "indeterminate sentences" meaning the Center has the power to release them whenever they feel it is appropriate.
  • 98% come in with major substance abuse issues.
  • 30-40% of the youth have major mental illness other than a major behavior disciplinary disorder.
  • 60% are Special Education students.
  • The female youth have an even higher rate of mental illness and trauma.
It seems like things are moving in the right direction, though there is still much work to be done.