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A 32-member task force is soliciting feedback in its effort to recommend changes, which could include shutting down state’s only youth prison, to how Maine treats youthful offenders.

Long Creek Youth Development Center, in a Nov. 16, 2016 file photo.

Long Creek Youth Development Center, in a Nov. 16, 2016 file photo. Portland Press Herald photo by Derek Davis

AUGUSTA — With no family at home, Brodie Dunton was an alcoholic by the time he was 14 years old and spent his teenage years in and out of minor trouble with the law.

He also found himself in and out various youth treatment programs, and then committed to Long Creek Youth Development Center on a misdemeanor theft charge.

“I ended up doing 26 months at Long Creek,” Dunton told a crowd Thursday at a Maine Juvenile Justice Task Force forum in Augusta. “They had me sitting there, doing nothing. I sat there until discharge.”

He was among a group of young adults at the forum who also spoke about their time incarcerated as children at Long Creek. The event also included representatives of the Maine Department of Corrections, police officers, legislators and other state and local government officials.

Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner of juvenile services at the Department of Corrections, who has also overseen operations at Long Creek, responded to Dunton that to be fair, it should be noted he would have gone home almost immediately, but he had no home. Nor, apparently, was there any other place for Dunton to go.

After the forum ended and the roughly 60 attendees were making their way out of Augusta City Center, Dunton summed up what attendees seemed to agree was a key problem with the juvenile justice system: “Why didn’t he have a place for me to go? That’s the thing.”

The forum was the third one in the state, with another set for next month in Portland, according to Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based juvenile justice policy group hired by state corrections officials to evaluate Maine’s juvenile justice system.

The goal: Delivering recommendations that could lead to reform and assist a 32-member task force of legislators, state officials, members of law enforcement and advocates charged with recommending reforms in how Maine treats youthful offenders.

The look at problems of the Maine juvenile justice system and ways to improve it includes considering closing or repurposing Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only youth prison.

Advocates said imprisoning youth does not work and is often harmful to the juveniles it claims to help, while the money, about $15 million a year, spent at Long Creek would be better spent on community-based programs for youths.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey warned that Maine needs somewhere to place youths who commit violent crimes to ensure the public’s safety.

“We know locking up juveniles is not the best for them, but is sometimes necessary,” Massey said. “I have some concerns if we’re going to close Long Creek. For those juveniles who are violent, we need a facility that has the security levels to prevent them from walking away and exposing the community to violence.”

Soler said he does not necessarily see Maine doing away with a secure holding facility for youth. He said that if more could be diverted to community-based programs — and the many youth at Long Creek who need mental health treatment, which the facility is not equipped to provide, are placed in treatment programs — Maine would have no need for a facility as large as Long Creek. In the past, the facility has had more than 300 youths in residence.

“If you could take the number (at Long Creek) down to who really needs to be confined, you’d have maybe 20, and it could be a much smaller facility,” Soler said. “Nobody is talking about opening the doors and letting the kids walk out.”

O’Neill said Long Creek now has about 55 youths, 35 of whom were sent there by judges after they committed crimes and 20 who are incarcerated temporarily because they stand accused of criminal behavior and await court proceedings.

He said Long Creek’s field staff, the equivalent of probation officers for youths, process about 2,000 referrals a year, and now oversee between 300 and 350 youths on probation.

O’Neill and Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said Maine officials have worked to divert an increasing number of youth from entering the correctional system.

O’Neill said about a third of the youth who end up at Long Creek are high-risk offenders accused or convicted of serious crimes, a third are lower-risk offenders involved in lesser crimes and a third are there due to behavioral or mental health issues.

Mike Prue, 28, of Biddeford, said there were more than 200 youths at Long Creek when he was there as a juvenile. In his experience, he said, youths sent there to be rehabilitated so they could become successful adults often experienced the opposite result.

“The way it stands is people (sent to Long Creek) find themselves worse off coming out than when they went in,” Prue said. “You treat them like they’re in adult prisons when they walk in, in shackles.

“As a kid that tried to ask for help, if I made the smallest mistake, they’d slap me back in there. And when you get out, where do you go? So they go back to the same lifestyle. You’re pretty much setting them up to fail.”

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, a co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said forming the task force and working to reform the juvenile justice system shows state officials are committed to improvements.

“We know the data shows locking kids up is not good for anyone,” she said.

Soler and State Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, a co-chairman of the task force with Liberty and Jill Ward from the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law, said they hope to propose reforms that will be considered by the next state Legislature.

A survey, asking people about their experiences in the juvenile justice system, will be part of what they consider in making recommendations, and is available at www.mainejjtaskforce.org.

Al Cleveland, 22, of Portland, is campaign coordinator for Maine Youth Justice, a nonpartisan group which advocates for ending youth incarceration in Maine. He said the group issued a report with eight recommendations for reforms to Maine’s juvenile justice system, including:

• Investing in communities and reimagining the role of police.

• Investing in credible messengers.

• Shutting down what they call the school-to-prison pipeline.

• Funding programs that divert youth from arrest, prosecution and incarceration.

• Creating a new model for small, community-based residential programs.

• Taking the responsibility for youth justice and community reinvestment out of the Maine Department of Corrections.

• Repurposing Long Creek.

Adan Abdikadir, 20, of Lewiston, who attended the forum with others from Maine Youth Justice, said many of the problems the forum sought to address result from youths not having positive role models in their lives.

“We need to worry about what’s happening in these kids’ homes, not having enough people to look up to,” he said, likening youths to flowers that need help to grow.

“We’re always questioning, ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’ Maybe it’s how they’re being flowered. Maybe the water is dirty, the community is dirty. It’s not just the flower itself. For it to pop, you need to put some water in.”

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The administrator of the Cumberland County Jail said overtime and double shifts are typically required of corrections officers twice a week as the jail faces a staffing shortage.

The case of a corrections officer who police said had just come off a 16-hour shift at the jail before causing a crash in Gorham that killed a 9-year-old girl, is raising questions about the work load for officers.

Police said Kenneth Morang, 61, admitted that he fell asleep before the July 2019 crash on Route 25.

Morang often volunteered to work 90 hours a week to make more money and to help fill a large staffing shortage at the Cumberland County Jail.

Of the 128 budgeted positions at the Cumberland County Jail, 27 are unfilled. That is a 16 percent vacancy rate.

Staffing shortages are common for jails in prisons across Maine. The Penobscot County Jail in Bangor has a 13 percent job vacancy rate, and the six state prisons are down 40 officers.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said the jobs are hard to fill. They are dangerous, stressful jobs that pay about $40,000 per year before overtime.

Corrections officers serve an average of three years before moving on to law enforcement jobs or other careers.

Because of the persistent staffing shortages, overtime for officers is often forced.

On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of Maine State Prison inmates, along with prison administrators, corrections officers and state legislators, gathered around tables in the facility’s visitation room.

An agenda was passed out, an inmate set up a laptop to take minutes of the meeting, then a strangely democratic process got underway.

“All right, welcome everyone. Today we’ve got a pretty full agenda and a pretty tight time frame,” Warden Matthew Magnusson said as the group sat down to discuss matters ranging from pod updates to reentry planning initiatives.

It was the monthly meeting of the Prisoner Advisory Council, a group established earlier this year to bring all levels of the prison population and administration together to talk about policies, problems and potential solutions.

The council is the first of its kind in the Maine Department of Corrections system, according to Magnusson, and it’s already increasing communication, building relationships and working toward changing the system.

These prison meetings are where Rep. Bill Plucker, I-Warren, and Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, initially learned about the negative impacts a critical shortage of corrections officers is having on both staff and inmates.

As a result, the lawmakers submitted an emergency bill aiming to increase the compensation for corrections officers in Maine in order to help with staff recruitment. The Legislative Council approved the emergency bill request last month, and the bill could get a public hearing before the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee early next year on its way to becoming law.

“What’s going on right here in this room is special. Where you have upper-level administration all the way down to residents of different units participating in a discussion that includes outside representatives,” said Leo, the inmate taking the meeting minutes. “We’re able to have real discussions about the issues that are going on in this prison … to put [those issues] on the table and have them be heard by people who can enact change.”

The Bangor Daily News was invited to the October Prison Council Advisory meeting, but is not using the full names of the inmates in order to prevent further trauma from being inflicted on their victims.

‘It’s Not Us Versus Them’

The council is composed of 15 inmates representing various groups that exist within the prison such as veterans, people of color, those in recovery, prisoners from religious backgrounds and those who are serving long sentences.

Prison administration officials used to meet separately with these groups but felt that bringing representatives from each to one table would have a better result.

“Together, along with staff, we’re trying to solve a lot of these underlying issues at the prison. What we’ve found is through a restorative justice circle, we are kind of working toward one goal,” Magnusson said.

Aside from prison administration, staff and inmates, and representatives from outside groups, such as the Maine Prisoner Reentry Network, attend the meetings, bring in their expertise and find areas for collaboration.

Topics that dominated the recent meeting included preparing inmates for reentry into the community as well as breaking down the stigma that comes with being incarcerated. A recent debate that played out in nearby Rockland over the placement of a reentry house in a residential neighborhood was referenced as one of the hurdles inmates face upon release.

“We want to convey to communities that people are trying to better themselves with the programs offered [in prison]. We think it’s important to let society know that there are people in here who made mistakes. They did their punishment now it’s time for them to put their life in order,” said Foster, president of the prison’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter.

Whether it’s a large societal issue such as reentry, or more day-to-day issues — such as prison programming — the meetings serve as a communication conduit.

Jeff, an inmate working with the Maine Prisoner Reentry Network to prepare inmates for release, said the meetings help share information not just between inmates and administration, but to others as well.

“These meetings create a conversation afterwards among ourselves. ‘Why don’t we work on this together, or do this together, to get this outcome,’” he said. “This meeting is groundbreaking. It throws the information out to both sides, to the administration and the inmate population, to help us understand how we can improve the culture of the prison.”

In her 15 years visiting the prison through her involvement with the NAACP, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said the Prisoner Advisory Council meetings are one of the best things she has seen happen there.

“To have this combination of input around the table and to feel perfectly empowered to add your voice to the discussion has been incredibly beneficial. It’s beneficial because there is some acknowledgement that the diversity of input will make the best result,” Talbot Ross said. “It’s not an us versus them. It’s ‘What are we going to do to move [the Department of Corrections] forward?’”

The medical treatment program addresses addiction, provides inmates resources after their release

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Image by Arline Lawless, Inmate at the Maine Correctional Center

WINDHAM, Maine — A pilot program offered by the Maine Department of Corrections has been successful thus far in rehabilitating inmates with an opioid use disorder.

Under the MDOC’s Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) program, inmates with an opioid use disorder that are 90 days from their release date have the opportunity to choose a medication that will help them get off the drugs.

Officials are looking at expanding a pilot program offered by the Maine Department of Corrections to inmates living with an opioid use disorder. (Photo/MDOC)
Officials are looking at expanding a pilot program offered by the Maine Department of Corrections to inmates living with an opioid use disorder. (Photo/MDOC)

WGME reports that since the implementation of the MAT program in May, 60 inmates have enrolled and 40 have graduated. MDOC officials said 100% of the inmates who have graduated from the MAT program are actively participating in drug treatment after their release.

“This is no different that treating a diabetic or a patient with a chronic illness that needs treatment,” Maine DOC Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell told WGME. “There’s no reason we should not provide a treatment that we know, evidence tells us, works.”

Right now, the pilot costs $35,000 a month to run at four out of the DOC’s six facilities, according to WGME. Thornell is hopeful that the program will be expanded to two more state facilities by 2020.

“That’s going to take several million dollars to expand like that but this is a priority for the state of Maine,” Thronell told WGME. “I think we’re going to have large support to make that expansion when the time is right.”

There are three things I find so sad here at Maine Correctional Center (M.C.C.) I thought I would share them with with you. First, I find it so sad when an inmate has resolved himself to wait till his Release to receive proper medical care! That in my mind is simply tragic. I over heard some inmate talking about some liver issue that the medical staff was saying: Booze, Booze, Booze was the cause (when he first arrived:) testing six months later same issue, but no Booze to blame it on; the inmate try’s to get medical to give meds without Tylenol (he takes 90,000mg a month.) At his 1 year health review (at 17 months.) The doctor asked the inmate (why aren’t you on straight blah, blah,” The inmate complains about his repeated attempts to get things changed. He tells the doctor he’ll just wait till he gets out to get things corrected (his outside doctors did not give him meds with Tylenol.) The inmate has Two years to serve, he leaves the room the doctor does not change his meds. SO SAD…..

Secondly, the telephone… I see the telephone as the greatest source of conflict, stress, and strife to see inmates pleading w/ spouses, way ward girl friend is awful… Inmates so want to have some kind of normalcy in controlling events outside the walls. They can’t, and it tears them up… SO SAD… To bad they did not have privacy. They must exposed their frustrations to the world (Dorm) SO SAD…

Lastly, it is so sad for me to see the “Tough Guys,” “The guys who do time; the muscle bound career criminals who prey on the weak & elderly around the dorms hanging out day in and day out at the cages, swinging of CO’s nuts. Yep, it seems the toughest, the biggest, baddest boys are the real  junior CO’s…. SO SAD…..

Bob Wire

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Image by A-Rain-Filled-Tabitha

I was shipped out to Washington County for a week.  The food was awful other than the homemade bread! That was good.  I’m going to be so fat by the time I’m out.  I only had outside rec once the whole week I was up there.  But there was a basketball hoop which was nice.  I actually made a shot behind my back just fucking around. LOL. The girl I was playing with quit. LOL.

There was no programs other than church on Sunday.  So it was soooo boring.  I watched a shit-ton of tv.  I watched “Get Hard.” It was so funny!!!  Kevin Heart is so funny.  But the girls were trouble over there.  I’m happy to be back!  They didn’t let me take anything.  So I had nothing, not even money for food.  It was awful.

My brother visited me when I was in Washington, which is a two hour and 30 minute drive for him!  I’m so thankful for him.  He visits me every Thursday here.  I have court soon, but can’t go since they are doing it over the phone since the DA is on vacation.  Oh, well.  I now have a bunch for my bail.  I’m hoping that can get me a bail hearing and see what more I have to come up with!

A-Rain-filled-Tabitha

PS I got my own bible yesterday.  It was pink!

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Image by Arline Lawless, convicted murderer currently held at Windham Prison (M.C.C.)

A legislative committee is considering ways to reduce jail populations and increase the likelihood that inmates will find stability and support when they are released.

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are looking for new approaches to curb costs at the state’s 15 county jails, which continually run in the red despite $95 million a year in county and state funding.

A range of proposals for reducing inmate populations and shortening time spent in the jails is under consideration by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which met Tuesday with county administrators, sheriffs, mental health and homeless advocates, and others searching for ways to reduce costs and improve outcomes.

The proposals include reducing or eliminating bail amounts for “low and no risk” suspects and providing inmates nearing the ends of their sentences with a better chance at stable housing, health care and work before they are released.

Other options being studied by the committee include adjusting or removing a cap in state law that limits the amount county governments can raise from property taxes to pay for jails.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the House chairwoman of the committee, said a bill she’s sponsored that was held over from 2019 will be the likely main vehicle for proposed law changes.

“I don’t see a big dollar figure,” Warren said. “But I possibly see some shifting of costs.”

The Legislature and the last three governors have wrestled with the problem of what to do about funding county jails, which are under constant financial strain and increasingly housing a population of inmates with complex and overlapping issues that range from substance use disorders to homelessness.

Tuesday’s meeting was the third in a series that is expected to wrap up in December with recommendations for legislation when the full Legislature returns to work in January.

Warren said 80 percent of jail costs are being borne by county property taxpayers, when sometimes those costs should be paid for by the state. State law requires anyone convicted of a crime and sentenced to more than nine months of incarceration to be put in the custody of the state’s Department of Corrections, presumably so they can be housed in a state facility. Warren pointed out that probation violations and the sentences for certain other offenses often are kept just below the nine-month threshold, making the inmate’s incarceration a county expense.

Former governors have wanted to do everything from forcing a merger of the county jails with the state’s Department of Corrections to requiring counties to pay all their own costs if they refuse to merge. A state Board of Corrections created by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci to oversee the entire correctional system was largely dismantled by his successor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Meanwhile, county sheriffs have returned to the Legislature year after year asking for financial help as jails respond to legal requirements to not only safely house inmates, but also to provide them with health care, including medications, counseling and educational programs.

Warren said the goal should be to get a long-term solution that works for all, saves money and produces better results – by making sure more inmates leave jail or prison to never return.

She said the idea of a “state sanctioned inmate” is key to the ongoing discussion about who ultimately pays or how those costs are shared. But the committee also is exploring a host of other solutions to rein in the escalating cost of incarceration for county governments.

While committee members said they don’t want to increase property taxes, they do want to provide county commissions with more local control and flexibility about how they budget and raise funds for their jails.

Cullen Ryan, the executive director of Community Housing of Maine, told the committee Tuesday that one key to reducing recidivism for many who ricochet from jails to homeless shelters to hospitals to jails again is to better ensure stable housing with support programs for those being released at the end of a sentence.

Ryan said the combined public costs of shelter stays, emergency room visits and jail time is far greater than the cost of subsidies for housing that can build stability in a person’s live, help them get access to regular health care and employment.

He said study after study, including those done in Maine, shows the same thing.

“Once folks get housed, that’s when they start to access primary care instead of emergency care, probably much like the folks in this room do,” Ryan said.

Over time, as their shelter and health care needs are stabilized, the overall public costs go down dramatically. “That person, hence, no longer touches jails, police, emergency rooms – all the expensive systems – anymore and they cost less,” Ryan said.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 19 and two more times in December before it finishes its work and makes recommendations to the Legislature.

Our View: Fewer inmates will relieve pressure on jails

A legislative committee looking at jail funding should focus on initiatives that lowers the jail population.

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Maine has 15 county jails, in places as different as Madison, Portland and Rockland, each with different histories, each operated by different county governments and drawing workers from different labor markets.

But there is one thing they have in common — though some more than others, all jails would benefit from fewer inmates, as would the state as a whole.

The Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee and other stakeholders are now working to find a permanent solution to the decade-old problems surrounding jail funding. Following the group’s first meeting, both the chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, and Randall Liberty, the state corrections commissioner, told the Bangor Daily News that much of the group’s focus should be on reducing the jail population.

They’re right.

The problem is at least 10 years in the making. With jail costs rising, Gov. John Baldacci in 2008 capped the amount of county taxpayer dollars that could be used for funding. The new Board of Corrections was left on the hook for any budget increase.

However, the state never followed through. Costs kept increasing, but counties found it difficult to get additional state money. The next governor, Paul LePage, did not like the way the Board of Corrections was set up — he fought against additional funding, and eventually let the board die through neglect.

LePage toward the end of his second term put forward a halfhearted plan to address jail funding, including closing up to five jails. But he never took them seriously, and neither did anyone else. So jails were left to operate without any way to raise more money.

The Legislature has provided relief here and there, but the structural problem persists. A series of bills aimed at the issue were considered last session, but lawmakers instead opted for a study group overseen by the criminal justice committee. It met for the first time last month.

Now, counties pay about 80 percent of jail costs while the state picks up the rest. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in changing the formula, but lawmakers will have to decide who pays for budget increases, and who gets to decide when those increases are necessary, in a way that adequately funds jails while preventing overspending. There must be a mechanism that pushes jails to coordinate efforts to install best practices and find efficiencies.

Beyond that, however, the most effective route lawmakers can take is to advance policies that cut the number of jail inmates — and cutting the number of inmates means cutting the number of people held before trial.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of jail inmates have yet to be convicted of the crime in question. The same holds true in Maine, and while the overall jail population has fallen in the last decade, the number of inmates held pretrial has increased.

Why? The system relies too heavily on bail, and when defendants can’t afford it, they are left for days, weeks, even months waiting for adjudication.

Sometimes, too, people are arrested when they could be issued citations, or they are incarcerated for minor probation violations.

Such incarcerations do not increase public safety; in fact, they may do the opposite. People held pretrial are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher sentences, adding to our costs. They are also more likely to recidivate.

Maine should cut back on the use of bail and expand pretrial release, as well as alternative housing and monitoring programs. Law enforcement should be pushed to avoid nuisance arrests.

In addition, more violators, when appropriate, should be pushed toward mental health and addiction treatment rather than jail. Treatment and re-entry programs should be expanded to cut down on recidivism.

A lot of these ideas came forward last legislative session, many of them in a bill that Warren crafted with help from sheriffs. Now is the time for the committee to figure how Maine can use them correctly.

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Political Prisoners

Welcome to the blog from inmates of Maine's jails and prisons.

In collaboration with the Holistic Recovery Project, the Political Prisoners Blog provides a prisoner's view into what's happening at Maine's correctional facilities.

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