The Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland has struggled to handle its large population of young inmates with serious mental illness.

The advocates calling to close Maine’s youth prison and the people who run it agree on something: Fewer kids behind bars is better.

It’s an idea that over the past decades shuttered another youth prison and saw a sharp reduction of inmates at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. More recently, as the South Portland facility has struggled with a staffing crisis and a large population of teens with deep mental illness, this idea has led criminal justice reform groups to call for it to be shut down.

The young people at Long Creek “don’t belong in a prison,” said Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “They would be far better served in community-based programs that get them the help they need. Other states are closing their youth prisons in favor of community-based treatment, and we can, too.”

Many of those who want the facility closed, like Beyea, point to the so-called Missouri model as the one Maine should pursue, saying the state’s single traditional prison for young offenders should be replaced by a network of localized homes for troubled youths focused more on education and rehabilitation.

But while those who handle juvenile corrections in Maine agree there’s a need for more outside treatment capacity, they caution that closing Long Creek is not a simple solution.

The debate over what to do with Long Creek — where mental health treatment is limited, incarceration costs taxpayers $250,000 per inmate annually, and an outside examination found “dangerous and harmful conditions” — has been mounting over the past year.

Policy experts and academics have joined activists in calling for a comprehensive rethinking of how Maine cares for troubled kids, and the issue may be taken up by the Legislature’s criminal justice committee this session. But how you hear the cries to shut down the prison depends on where you approach it from.

For Christine Thibeault, a veteran prosecutor who leads the Cumberland County district attorney’s juvenile division, just calling to close the prison is “irresponsible” because some young people there could pose a genuine threat to public safety, and others have no safe place to go.

No one wants to ask a judge to lock up a teenage girl because she is otherwise likely to overdose or become a victim of sex trafficking, “but that’s the reality I deal with,” said Thibeault. “Right now, Long Creek is the one place that we have to put kids, frankly, to keep them alive.”

So what is to be done?

‘The way it usually is’

In Long Creek, nearly 85 percent of the young people committed to the prison had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions, as of July 2016. More than four out 10 had spent time in a mental health center before being locked up, and kids have continued to slide from mental health facilities into the prison, according to corrections officials.

For Mark Steward, it’s a familiar story.

“Most states don’t have a mental health system that’s equipped to handle the violent youth with mental health issues,” said Steward, who directs the not-for-profit Missouri Youth Services Institute and previously led that state’s hybrid juvenile corrections and social services department. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it usually is.”

As a longtime employee and eventual director of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services, Steward helped create a system of group homes for young offenders that’s become a model for criminal justice reform nationwide. His group has since worked to improve conditions at prisons and jails from New York City to Los Angeles, exporting the Missouri model.

Across the country, between one-third and half of the young people in state prisons have mental illness, according to Steward. At Long Creek, staff was strained by trying to help a population they’re not trained to treat, even before the prison was rocked by it’s first death in decades, a suicide in the fall of 2016.

This kind of “critical incident” is frequently the impetus for prison reform, Steward said. And advocates and corrections officials in Maine agree that the state would do well to move closer to the program Steward helped pioneer.

‘The gold standard’

“Missouri is a great model to look at,” said Colin O’Neill, an associate commissioner with the Maine Department of Corrections. “In other states, they have … a level of care out in the community that we don’t.”

Rather than large facilities akin to adult prisons, the model used in Missouri is based around small group homes. These homes can have varied levels of security, but consistently focus on therapy, education and fostering community among about a dozen young people, Steward said.

“It became the gold standard across the country,” he said.

One of the reasons the program was a success in Missouri and has since been re-created in other states is its focus on keeping the same group of kids together with the same staff, according to Steward. This provides stability and fosters a connection that lets staff better understand and respond to the young people, he said.

O’Neill and Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick were recently in Massachusetts looking at youth centers there and may make another trip to Vermont to learn more about that state’s youth corrections system, the associate commissioner said. In Massachusetts, as in Missouri, youth corrections falls under a department of youth services that integrates functions that in Maine are served by the separate departments of corrections, education, and health and human services.

“In Maine, there’s a siloed approach to the way we do work,” said O’Neill “The DOC does not have any homes in the community.”

O’Neill cast the planned opening of a halfway house for young men in Portland as the beginning of a shift, but warned that the demographics at Long Creek and who Maine considers a juvenile presents challenges to more comprehensive change.

‘It’s not so simple’

In Maine, youth can be held in the juvenile system up to the age of 21 for crimes they committed as minors. This is the case in many states around the country, according the National Center for Juvenile Justice, but means that many of the young people at Long Creek aren’t really kids.

As of January, there were 54 committed inmates at Long Creek, according to Department of Corrections statistics provided to the Bangor Daily News by Tonya Dimillo, the head of the citizen group that oversees the prison. (The number of teens detained, or held pending trial or medical placement, at the prison varies widely from one day to the next.)

Of these, more than half were 18 or older and 58 percent had been convicted of the youth equivalent of a felony. Forty-two percent of the overwhelmingly male group had previously spent time in a mental health treatment center or psychological hospital, according to the department.

For Dimillo, there is a link between the problems at Long Creek and the recent spate of violent crimes involving children. She believes there’s been a deterioration of the services for children around the state and that Maine needs to form a commission to review and strengthen policies across juvenile corrections and mental health, as well as child welfare, education and public health.

The Department of Health and Human Services is planning new, regional psychiatric treatment centers that could treat some of the young people now at Long Creek, but has not released details.

O’Neill said he’s optimistic that these new mental health centers will eventually help move more mentally ill teens out of Long Creek. However, he said that there will always be a need for a secure youth facility in Maine and that further reducing the number of young people behind bars requires alternatives that don’t now exist in the state.

“Obviously, for us, we’re looking to continue to reduce the number of people in incarceration,” he said of the Department of Corrections. “It’s not so simple to just to close Long Creek.”

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