LEWISTON — The young man’s name is Matt and as far as he’s concerned, the Long Creek Youth Development Center ought to be completely dismantled.

Pull down the thick steel doors, he suggested, and rip down bars wherever they are found.

“Maybe even repurpose it,” the 17-year-old suggested, “and make it into some sort of community mental health facility where people can get the help they need.”

A 17-year-old Lisbon boy named Matt describes his experiences at the Long Creek Youth Development Center before a crowd gathered to discuss juvenile justice matters Wednesday night at Lewiston High School. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

In an auditorium at Lewiston High School on Wednesday night, nobody regarded Matt’s idea as extreme. The room was crowded with people who turned out for a town hall-style meeting to discuss the many failings of Maine’s juvenile justice system.

Matt was in and out of Long Creek starting when he was 12 years old, he said. Now he volunteers with the Maine Inside Out program, helping to educate people about problems within the youth justice system.

Long Creek, Matt and many others said, has plenty of problems. There are corrupt guards, they say, and others who mean well but who are not trained to deal with the range of mental health problems suffered by the youth inmates.

“Ninety-five percent of the population at Long Creek had mental health problems one way or another,” Matt said.

Nobody stood to dispute that. In fact one man, whose son is being held at the South Portland facility, said that for the kids at Long Creek it is a day-to-day fight for survival.

“It’s eat or be eaten,” said Ron Breton, who said he has studied the shortcomings of Long Creek since his adopted son was taken there. “It’s very concerning as a parent. Why can’t we have a mental health facility to help with the problems that many of these kids have?”

The staff at Long Creek are not adequately trained, Breton and others said. There are no real educational programs at the facility and no system aimed at preparing the kids for life after incarceration.

“We’re just locking them up,” Breton said, “and forgetting about them.”

So what is to be done about these problems? Finding out is the aim of the Wednesday night forum presented by Maine Youth Justice and hosted by members of the Juvenile Justice System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force.

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law & Policy, takes questions from a group gathered at Lewiston High School on Wednesday night. Mark LaFlamme/Sun Journal

Mark Soler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law Policy, said that after a young inmate died at Long Creek three years ago, his group was brought in to assist a 30-member task force of legislators, state officials, law enforcement and advocates charged with rethinking how Maine treats youthful offenders. Part of that process involved assessing conditions at Long Creek.

“We found a lot of problems there,” Soler said.

The group is conducting interviews and talking to anybody involved in the system in Lewiston, Portland, Augusta and Bangor. They talk to police officers and probation officers. They talk to jail guards, politicians and the inmates.

“We can’t do our jobs if we don’t learn what the system is like from the people who live in these communities,” Soler said. “If you think that something should be different, we’d want to hear what they are.”

Soler asked and the audience of at least three dozen answered.

Matt described seeing a fellow inmate getting his teeth kicked out by a Long Creek staff member. He described a place of almost unimaginable tension as kids struggled to survive in a corrupt system. And while he called for a complete overhaul of Long Creek at the very least, he also advised that the best way to improve life for young people is to keep them from ever having to go there in the first place.

“Help people before they get involved in the system,” Matt said.

Easier said than done, maybe. Several in the audience suggested that staying out of the system is twice as hard for people of color and other minorities. One young man pointed out that while African Americans make up just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the population in prisons.

Police profiling exists, he insisted. He described being questioned by police and his car searched with no probable cause to justify it. It’s a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, the young man declared, “but I’m supposed to just drive off like nothing happened. And this is every black male in America.”

Breton, whose son remains at Long Creek, said there is no sense of urgency at the lockup.

“That seems like it’s a big piece of the problem,” he said. “They’re doing the best they can, maybe, but it’s not enough.”

Soler said more public talks are scheduled, here and in the other three cities on which his group is focusing. Members plan to deliver a comprehensive report on Maine’s juvenile justice system in February 2020. Whether or not Long Creek will be shut down — as many have recommended — remains to be seen.

While they talked about their own experiences with the local justice system, some from the audience Wednesday night were moved to tears. Soler thanked them for it. In the end, he said, all of it will help them make a more comprehensive report on the system’s shortcomings.

“It’s hard to do,” Soler told them, “but it’s very important.”

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