Opinion

A new leader isn’t enough. Long Creek should be shuttered.

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The new superintendent of Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s prison for kids, seems like a great person.

Caroline Raymond has opened up the doors of the facility to members of the Maine media, she’s granted interviews with the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald, in an effort I believe, to rub the rough edges off two different damning reports about the prison.

She has shown herself to be human and caring, relating an anecdote about the emotions she felt watching the kids in her care win a basketball game against another school. She talks about her background, not in corrections, but with a program that works with kids battling substance abuse.

By all accounts, she is the type of leader we need at Long Creek.

And none of that — absolutely none of it — changes the fact that kids don’t belong in prisons and that Long Creek should be closed.

Hearing firsthand reports about Raymond and reading the recent media coverage about her, perhaps she’s the leader who can do the right thing and shut it down.

According to the Press Herald, there are about 64 kids housed at Long Creek right now. The numbers fluctuate. In July 2016, there were 79 kids there. Over the long term, the number of kids who are incarcerated in Maine has been dropping. Long Creek, built to accommodate nearly three times as many people as it houses today, has a lot of unused space.

It costs about $250,000 a year to care for a kid at the South Portland facility, or about $15 million a year to run Long Creek. It’s extremely expensive.

But more important than the costs, housing kids in this type of secure, confined facility doesn’t work — for the kids, their families, staff or the state.

Outcomes are bad, and the kids aren’t getting the health care and educational services they need for rehabilitation.

An audit, released late last year and conducted by The Center for Children’s Law and Policy, found serious problems at the facility, including physical abuse and inappropriate use of force. The facility isn’t safe for the residents.

The kids are afraid — and rightly so. There are documented cases of violence at the hands of staff and other residents.

The audit also confirmed data released in January 2017 by the Maine Department of Corrections. Many of the residents have severe mental health issues. According to the Department of Corrections, about 85 percent of residents arrive at Long Creek with three or more mental health diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD.

The audit also found that Long Creek is not meeting its obligation to provide adequate education to these kids, many of whom require special education services.

The population is disproportionately kids of color and poor.

None of this is a secret. And there are no easy answers for some of these kids.

But we know, by our own experiences in Maine and in other states, what works and what doesn’t. Prison confinement doesn’t work for kids.

Maine needs to develop a system of regional, community-based treatment facilities that can provide the care these kids need to get their lives back on the right track. Other states have been successful in retooling their juvenile justice systems to get better results at a lower cost. Maine has fallen behind.

The “Missouri Model” is one example of an approach that’s getting better results.

Not long after the audit was made public, a second report from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service and the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law was released.

The report echoed a call for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system in Maine. “It is time to roll up our sleeves and find alternative solutions that more effectively serve our most vulnerable youth. … We have the data, resources, and knowledge we need to get there. It is time to invest in a new vision for youth justice in Maine.”

It’s easy to write these kids off as bad apples, and Long Creek lets most of us off the hook with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach.

But staff and administrators told investigators that they believed as many as 50 percent of the kids held at Long Creek could be safely released into the community. With appropriate care and support for mental health issues, the number is probably higher.

There are 64 kids at Long Creek. Surely, we can find a way to do better by such a small number of kids.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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