Maine’s youth prison continues to use dangerous force against incarcerated kids even after a watchdog report warned about it more than four years ago, according to an advocacy group that has oversight power of the prison.
The prison’s use of prone restraints — where the prisoner is held in a belly-down position — was the most alarming example of “urgent safety concerns” that Disability Rights Maine recently discovered at Long Creek Youth Development Center, according to a letter the agency sent to Maine Department of Corrections last week. Experts had previously warned the prison to stop the practice because it can lead to serious injuries or death and goes against how guards are trained.
But in early August, staff restrained youth in a prone position six times in one hour, the agency alleged. In some cases, staff applied pressure to the backs of teens while restraining them on their bellies, increasing the risk of injury or death and two teens spent more than 20 minutes in a prone position, according to the letter.
The allegations came four years after an outside firm investigated a reported crisis of violence, staffing issues and self-harm at the South Portland lockup. Those reports have helped fuel a campaign to shut down the prison as officials have worked to fix the problems that advocates and experts have identified.
“To the extent progress was made to improve the conditions for those at Long Creek, it appears to have been lost,” Disability Rights Maine lawyer Atlee Reilly wrote to corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty on Sept. 2.
The Department of Corrections is conducting an internal investigation of the incidents described in the letter and takes its concerns seriously, a spokesperson said Thursday.
In 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington D.C.-based firm, issued a report that criticized the conditions at Long Creek, including a finding that staff were using prone restraints even though they were trained not to. The report recommended the prison should stop the practice and clarify its training policies, among other steps to improve the facility’s conditions.
But during a visit to the prison last month, lawyers with Disability Rights Maine spoke to youth who said that guards were still putting them in prone restraints. The agency has legal authority to visit the prison as the state’s designated advocacy agency for people with disabilities.
“I don’t know how often it’s happening, but if within an hour they’ve used [prone restraints] six times, that’s more than a one-off issue,” Reilly said. He wasn’t aware if any of the youth restrained on Aug. 2 experienced injuries as a result.
The incidents also raised other concerns about how well staff are trained to de-escalate situations before opting to use force against the young people in their custody.
For example, in one incident that took place Aug. 2, a young person blocked his door with a mattress, according to the letter. When the guards opened the cell door, he stumbled out, and the officers grabbed him by the arms, lifted him from the floor and then “took him to the ground with such force that both the staff and the youth appeared to bounce from the impact,” the letter said.
The guards then held the boy on his belly for several minutes until he was handcuffed and escorted from the room, the agency said.
The agency urged officials to immediately stop the use of such “dangerous and harmful practices” and preserve all records related to the incidents described in its letter in case the agency decides to conduct a formal investigation.
It also asked the state to take steps to address its concerns, including by reenlisting the help of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy to conduct another assessment of Long Creek.
The assessment would include an independent investigation of the incidents of Aug. 2, as well as a review of an “equally troubling” incident that reportedly occurred Aug. 30 and involved the use of restraints and riot gear, according to the letter.