PORTLAND, Maine — The state intends to set up secure, regional psychiatric facilities to serve young people with serious mental illness and relieve pressure on Maine’s youth prison, Department of Corrections officials said Thursday.

For more than a year, the Long Creek Youth Development Center has been strained by the influx of teenagers whose needs prison officials have acknowledged cannot be met in a corrections facility.

This trend has seen a pattern of violence and self harm among some young inmates, led to a staffing crisis at Long Creek and kindled infighting between corrections officials and their counterparts in the Department of Health and Human Services.

[Staff shortages plague ‘dumping ground’ for youth with mental illness]

In the spring, the state will begin a new approach to serve some of its most troubled youth, Commissioner of Corrections Joseph Fitzpatrick said Thursday.

The commissioner provided scant details of what this new system will look like and how it will be paid for, deferring to the the Department of Health and Human Services, which he said was leading the effort.

The governor’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Gov. Paul LePage has spent more than a year trying to build a secure psychiatric facility for adults to supplement the Augusta’s Riverview Psychiatric Center, which lost federal accreditation in 2013 for inadequate operations, including overcrowding, understaffing and unethical treatment of patients.

It’s unclear how the state intends to swiftly open similar facilities for young people, and the head of the citizen board that oversees Long Creek suggested that they’re overdue and insufficient.

“They’ve come forward to address an issue that was an obvious issue when it was discussed almost a year ago, but I don’t believe they’ve gone far enough,” said Tonya DiMillo, the head of the Long Creek Board of Visitors. “The question remains what is being done to prevent youth from going into these facilities, whether it’s Long Creek or a mental health facility.”

But during a rare press conference that gave reporters a look inside the usually closed world of the South Portland youth prison, Fitzpatrick expressed optimism that the new youth psychiatric facilities will help things improve at Long Creek.

“Thirty percent of our kids would probably meet the criteria to be in these kinds of community settings,” Fitzpatrick told the Bangor Daily News. “It takes a lot of pressure off of the staff.”

Some elements of this new system could come online as soon as next spring, Fitzpatrick said, noting that the idea for it was born out of cooperation between corrections and health and human services officials and support from LePage.

“You can’t fix [a problem] if you don’t have an option. The governor said ‘Create an option.’ So that’s what’s happening,” Fitzpatrick said of a meeting he and LePage had roughly five months ago to discuss the need for alternatives for possibly violent, youth with mental illness.

[Watchdogs revealed crisis in Maine’s youth prison. LePage let them go.]

The commissioner and another top corrections official spent more than two hours Thursday responding to a recent third-party report that had found myriad problems at the youth prison and broadly affirms months of Bangor Daily News reporting on Long Creek.

[Report urges state to overhaul Maine’s entire juvenile justice system]

In its 75-page report on Long Creek, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy report flagged the staff shortage, inmates’ acute mental illness lack of special education services as particularly pressing needs.

Since the Washington, D.C.-based think tank examined Long Creek this summer, the facility has hired a total of 30 guards and is now fully staffed, corrections officials said.

The Department of Corrections is in the process of requesting proposals for a private organization that can provide special education services at the school in Long Creek, which will otherwise continue to be run by the state.

The deep problems at Long Creek began to come to light after a 16-year-old transgender boy hung himself in his cell while on suicide watch last October. And they were pushed into full public view in February, when Long Creek’s Board of Visitors sent the Legislature reports on the self-harm and mental illness among young people there.

On Thursday, DiMillo said that the Department of Corrections had been asking other state agencies for help in dealing with the acutely mentally ill young people who’d been landing in Long Creek “well before” she brought the issue to lawmakers.

“We have to look at standards in the state of Maine around what we expect, regardless of changes of administration, for care and treatment for our youth,” said DiMillo.

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg.

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