Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland is pictured on Nov. 17, 2016. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Cumberland County district attorney will not bring criminal charges against a group of corrections officers involved in a series of high-profile use-of-force incidents at the state’s only youth prison last summer.

The decision concludes a nearly year-long outside review that came after watchdogs raised alarm that guards at Long Creek Youth Development Center had used dangerous, forceful tactics to get youth under control during a series of disturbances at the South Portland facility.

In response, District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck conducted an independent review into the actions of five guards to determine whether to bring criminal charges.

Jonathan Sahrbeck. Credit: Courtesy of Kaitlynn Hutchins

“The analysis included examining whether the use of force was reasonable based upon the circumstances at that time and the role of the individuals involved, as well as if we believed that we would be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a criminal act was committed,” Sahrbeck said.

Based on that review, his office will not pursue any charges, he said Wednesday.

A spokesperson with the Maine Department of Corrections declined to comment on whether the corrections officers were still employed because the department’s administrative review of the use-of-force incidents is still open. 

The department has since retrained staff on “methods of de-escalation and response management,” however, and reinstated programs that were paused due to the pandemic to make sure kids have “pro-social outlets” in an effort to prevent future conflicts, spokesperson Anna Black said.

The incidents last summer came after lawyers with Disability Rights Maine sent a letter to state corrections officials raising alarm that guards had used force against youth.

Specifically, guards had restrained youth on their bellies, despite previous warnings not to use so-called prone restraints because they can cause asphyxiation and even death, the letter said.

The events again put a spotlight on the dangerous conditions inside Long Creek, where a reported crisis of self-harm, untreated mental illness and staffing problems have fueled calls to close the prison for years. The scrutiny prompted a shakeup of the prison’s leadership and the second audit of the facility’s conditions in four years.

The audit found that the state had not addressed problems identified years earlier, such as a chronic staffing shortage and the unmet mental health needs of youth. These conditions led to a series of violent clashes between bored, stressed-out kids and overburdened, improperly trained guards last year, according to the investigation. Kids caused more than $100,000 worth of damage to the facility, and officers resorted to dangerous tactics to get them under control.

The violence came about two months after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have closed Long Creek by 2023. It renewed calls to close the facility.

Meanwhile, the Maine Department of Corrections has not publicly said whether it plans to shutter the prison, but it has been working to reduce the number of kids there for years and is currently scouting alternative locations to house those who remain behind bars.

A bill that would have banned the use of prone restraints, electroshock devices and pepper spray against youth in correctional facilities died in the Maine Legislature this spring.

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Callie Ferguson

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