Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Lawmakers questioned Maine’s corrections commissioner Friday over a recent streak of violence inside the state’s youth prison.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty deflected specific questions about six recent incidents where staff used force against kids at Long Creek Youth Development Center, saying an outside firm is conducting an independent investigation into what happened.

But when pressed by a lawmaker, Liberty acknowledged at least two cases where guards restrained a kid in a prone position, and another time where a guard used mace. A watchdog group previously sounded the alarm over the prison’s use of dangerous techniques like the prone restraint, which can cause serious injury or death and is against department policy.

The questioning came a week after two top Long Creek officials, including the prison’s former superintendent, announced they were resigning. Earlier this month, an advocacy group sent a letter to Liberty calling out the continued use of dangerous tactics against kids in the prison.

Liberty defended the guards’ use of force, saying some kids were out of control and caused as much as $100,000 damage to the facility, or brandished makeshift weapons or threatened to hurt themselves. He also said that staff members who violated policies when using force will be held accountable, and at least two such instances are under review by the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office.

The forthcoming investigation from Center for Children’s Law and Policy will review whether staff took appropriate actions and place a heavy focus on what caused the violent clashes between guards and the kids in their custody. That review will also determine whether the prison adopted recommendations the firm previously made in 2017 when it studied how to improve conditions at the South Portland lockup.

Most of the kids in Long Creek have complex mental health needs, histories of serious trauma or both, and already struggled to follow rules before entering a stressful prison setting, Mark Solar, the firm’s executive director, said.

“Kids generally don’t turn over a table for no reason,” he said, referring to one recent incident Liberty described.

Lawmakers spent most of a four-hour hearing questioning why last month was so violent and whether it could have been prevented if Maine implemented recommendations over the years about how to better meet the needs of troubled kids. Some of them were sympathetic toward the guards who used force to defend themselves.

Liberty said he intends to update the group on a monthly basis as the department carries out ongoing efforts to establish alternative placements for incarcerated kids that would eventually lead to the emptying of Long Creek.

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.