SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Caroline Raymond and Sherreccia Jackson started their jobs in crisis.

They took up leadership at Maine’s youth prison late last summer as its staff teetered on the brink of exhaustion, pushed to the edge by forced double shifts, thousands of hours of overtime and a group of young inmates with profound mental illness beyond the training of corrections officers.

Independent auditors who visited the Long Creek Youth Development Center around that time found that the mental health issues and staffing shortage had created dangerous and harmful conditions,” and that the prison’s school was not meeting its legal requirements to educate some young people.

During an extended interview at the South Portland facility, the new superintendent and director of education for the Department of Corrections told the Bangor Daily News how they’ve been working to right the troubled youth prison. The officials were candid about problems at Long Creek, but also said they’ve seen marked improvements and defended its place in Maine’s criminal justice system.

Amid a rising public debate about the appropriateness of a youth prison and against a still blurry backdrop of planned changes to Maine’s youth mental health services, the pair are trying to steer Long Creek towards stability and out of the long shadow of a tragedy — the suicide of a young inmate, Charles Maisie Knowles.

“We suffered an incredible trauma in the building,” said Raymond, who was hired as superintendent in August after years of working in and around the prison for Day One, a youth counseling group. “That was the saddest day in Long Creek history.”

Knowles’ death in October 2016 brought intense public scrutiny on Long Creek, as the prison was struggling with a population of teens whose rate of mental illness was around 85 percent.

The tragedy, relatively low pay and the challenge of working with these young people prompted some staff to leave Long Creek, requiring longer hours of those who remained and driving further turnover. This cycle was punctuated in March by the sudden resignation of Long Creek’s former superintendent, Jeff Merrill II, amid a still unexplained investigation. By the summer, the facility was facing a staffing crisis.

In taking charge of Long Creek, Raymond said that filling the empty jobs was one of her top priorities.

Long Creek was able to rapidly hire more juvenile program workers, the official term for corrections officers who work there, by deferring some of the training that staff normally receive.

The prison is now near full staffing. Every new hire did two weeks of corrections training that Raymond referred to as “the essentials,” and they are now rotating off the job to complete the full six week training to work in the youth facility, the superintendent said. Long Creek also hired five new “behavioral health techs” who help the young inmates develop healthy coping skills, she said.

As staff go back for further training, there are still occasionally forced double shifts but the new hires have made a big difference, according to corrections officials.

“We’re in a very different place than we were a year ago,” said Commissioner of Corrections Joseph Fitzpatrick. “That staffing crisis really doesn’t exist at this time.”

Solving this problem has also helped to reduce the self harm among young inmates at Long Creek that prompted the independent board that oversees the prison to send an alarmed report to the Legislature last year, Fitzpatrick said.

Fewer young people are hurting themselves or threatening suicide, although some continue to do so as “a maladaptive coping strategy,” said Fitzpatrick, who is a clinical psychologist.

At the Arthur R. Gould School, which temporarily laid off nearly half its teachers ahead of the state shutdown last summer, there have also been changes and new hires.

The school, which serves young people who are committed to Long Creek and those who are being temporarily detained there, has hired more teachers with special education training. It is also working to strengthen communication with the schools around Maine that inmates attend before and after incarceration, according to Sherreccia Jackson. The Department of Corrections is also seeking proposals for an outside group to handle special education at Long Creek.

Jackson, who worked in corrections education in various positions across the country before coming to Maine in 2014, said that these steps will better serve the young people at Long Creek — 85 percent of whom have special education needs.

“The vigor and quality of education has improved,” said Jackson.

Advocates who watch Long Creek closely acknowledged these steps as progress, but reject the idea that a prison is the right place for most young Mainers who’ve committed crimes. Several groups have argued that the problems at Long Creek are part of a national trend and urged a bottom-to-top reevaluation of Maine’s corrections and mental health care systems.

“I don’t know that there’s anything that [Long Creek] can do to alleviate the fear that we’re continuing to inflict through state-sanctioned trauma on young people,” said Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “Really we only have a handful of young people who need that type of incarceration and the facility should be closed.”

Raymond and Fitzpatrick both said they believe there will always be a role for a corrections facility in Maine’s youth justice system and noted that the state has drastically reduced over the last two decades the number of young people it incarcerates.

Raymond has watched this change firsthand since the late 1990s when she began working for Day One at the Maine Youth Center, Long Creek’s precursor which was located just above the present-day campus.

“When I worked up on the hill there were 300 [inmates],” she said. “Now there are 65.”

But both the commissioner and superintendent have also said that many of the young people in Long Creek need mental health care that a corrections facility simply can’t provide.

Late last year, Fitzpatrick said that the Department of Health and Human Services was working to create regional psychiatric centers that will better serve some of the youth now at Long Creek. At the time, he had scant details on the new centers but said they might be opened as early as this spring.

A health and human services spokeswoman said that the department is “exploring” a plan for high-intensity psychiatric care for young people with severe behavioral health disorders, including some now in Long Creek and others who are sent out of state for care. Spokeswoman Emily Spencer said she could not go into detail because the project is “still under development.”

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said that young Mainers would be better served if the Department of Health and Human Services displayed some of the transparency recently shown by Department of Corrections officials.

“These kids have unmet needs,” said Beyea. “The DOC is the wrong department to be taking care of them and these families suffer.”

Follow Jake Bleiberg at: @JZBleiberg.

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