Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street in South Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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We are living in an unprecedented time, when the support systems, care and reassurance that we need to get through this pandemic are more important than ever, especially for our young people. But there are a number of youth not getting that reassurance, care and protection that is essential during this extreme health crisis — our youth who are still behind bars at the Long Creek Youth Developmental Center.

As our state and local officials continue to put measures in place to combat the highly contagious COVID-19 outbreak, youth at Long Creek are still at extreme risk, facing uncertainty and an inability to protect themselves in the event of an outbreak within the facility. The time to act is now. We’ve seen what happens when officials don’t act quickly enough to protect our young people.

Earlier this month, the Maine Department of Corrections confirmed the first positive case of COVID-19 in Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Last month a youth detention facility in Connecticut reported seven cases, many of which were asymptomatic, increasing the risk of spread. And in New York, an outbreak was reported in a youth facility in Brooklyn, reporting almost a dozen cases. It’s not a matter of if, but when the same scenario arises in Long Creek.

Even with the steps taken earlier this month to release more than a dozen youth, there are still roughly 30 youth in detention, the majority of whom have multiple mental health diagnoses and are now in extreme isolation. Despite all of this, Gov. Janet Mills is saying the state is not shortening or ending sentences, which is an unacceptable position during this public health crisis.

Mills should immediately release a comprehensive plan to release all remaining youth from Long Creek, provide adequate housing and resources for youth leaving the facility, universal COVID-19 testing, and to make public the administration’s plans for when COVID-19 hits Long Creek.

As we’ve witnessed in other states, staff at Long Creek may be afraid to go to work, call out sick or just not show up, and less staff means more incarcerated youth will be put into isolation, which can exacerbate or create mental health issues. Infection control is a challenge in these environments as incarcerated youth are often in large congregate and communal settings.

There is a clear public health need to release all remaining youth in Long Creek and implement testing for COVID-19 to all youth and staff.

Sadly, the governor’s office has been keeping the public in the dark with a series of privately held meetings with legislators and the Department of Corrections. Maine Youth Justice sent Mills and the Department of Corrections a letter asking for this plan on March 19 and has received no response. We urge Mills to lead with compassion and provide a public plan.

For young people getting out of Long Creek, the DOC should put in place individualized transition plans that include guaranteed housing, healthcare, technology, and basic resources. Maine spends more than $300,000 a year to lock up a single young person in Long Creek. These funds need to be reallocated towards community development and housing during this crisis. Mills and the DOC have a moral obligation to its citizens and the resources to lead the protection of youth presently and formerly incarcerated at Long Creek.

It is overdue for Mills to immediately release a more comprehensive plan to release all remaining youth from Long Creek and provide adequate housing and resources for youth leaving the facility. COVID-19 will not wait. It is also long overdue for Mills to implement universal testing for COVID-19 in Long Creek. We must work together to ensure all of our youth are protected and cared for during this crisis. It is time to #FreeOurYouth.

Pious Ali is a Portland City Council member and a volunteer at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. Suzanne Virginia Ramos is a Registered Nurse. Al Cleveland is the campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice.