By Ulya Aligulova

Maine Youth Justice (MYJ) is a youth-led, non-partisan campaign advocating for the closure of Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine’s only youth detention facility; the end of youth incarceration in Maine; the reallocation of funds to community-based services that respond to youth’s needs, support families, and build community; and alternative solutions to incarceration to address the root cause of youth’s issues. Established in 2019, Maine Youth Justice members have previous experiences with the juvenile justice system and have served time in Long Creek.

“Maine Youth Justice’s main goal is to shut down Long Creek and reinvest the $18.6 million that’s currently being used lock up Maine’s youth into community programs like adequate housing, the provision of more medical and mental health services and various resources that the community might need,” said Ladislas Nzeyimana, advocacy coordinator at MYJ. “We work with previously incarcerated youth and other members of our community to get to know first-hand the changes that our community needs. According to a calculation we did recently, the budget the Maine government spends to incarcerate a single youth for a year is 97% more than what they spend on education.”

Formerly incarcerated describe life at Long Creek
Members of Maine Youth Justice are passionate about the importance of their campaign. “I spent five-and-a-half years in Long Creek,” MJ Prue, MYJ mentor and co-founder recalled. “I have scars from shackles. I didn’t even know what a riot shield was until I went into that place and was hit by one. There’s so much untold mental scarring. I could’ve gone in there for a mistake, a simple misdemeanor that I could’ve easily rebounded from if I could talk to someone. I came out a worse person than I was going in. I was sociable before, I was antisocial coming out. Rehabilitation doesn’t exist in Long Creek. Is that really how we’re supposed to integrate our youth when they leave the facility? On top of that, while you’re in there, the world outside changes but no one keeps you updated on it. So when kids get released and there are new rules and the laws have changed, none of them have any idea what’s going on and have to learn the hard way. There’s no wonder why they return back; they’re being set up for returning.

Coming out, the children’s minds have been totally brainwashed, they’re clueless about what to do in their daily life now. That’s why groups like us came out and had to speak. There’s not enough people who are aware of what really happens on the inside.”

MYJ Adult Organizer Jossalyn Adan said, “As someone who’s been locked up in Long Creek, the conditions in there are horrifying. Nobody cares about you and they just treat you like crap. Everybody just wants to start a fight with everybody. And the staff are only adding to the problem. They don’t even give you the skills to function out in public. This is why people keep coming back because they’re not given the services that they need. As someone who’s experienced that for years and suffered from poor mental health, it takes a huge toll. And it’s harder to find help as you get older. Why are we wasting our time and money on youth incarceration when we could be helping youth out so they don’t have to follow in this path? That’s what people really fail to realize – if you help them out before they start making these mistakes, they won’t end up incarcerated.

“There aren’t many people talking about their experiences. People are put in fear so much that they don’t speak up. They’re afraid to speak out against the politicians. But if they haven’t lived a day in our lives, they don’t have the right to tell us our experiences aren’t justified. People like Mills are talking about how they understand how people are affected, but they don’t. How can you talk about something you’ve never experienced? The experience has a greater value than any opinions you bring to the table. Because if you listen to people’s experiences, you’d realize why they make the choices they do and why certain choices are harder than others. A lot of people fail to realize that if someone went to jail, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to change their life. You have the possibility to change. But there are people who have a greater need for help in order to change that this country isn’t providing.”

Mentor Prue said, “As a youth development facility, what exactly are we developing by just throwing a kid in a cage? Not every kid that goes in there is the worst person in the world. They’ve just made a mistake. The world is full of mistakes. We realize that when kids go in there they no longer feel like they have a voice to speak for themselves. So it takes people like us who have lived experiences to tell the real truth. We use our stories to shed light on what actually happens in these programs. Back in the day, Long Creek was a 200-person facility. Now it’s down to 23. To me, $18 million can go towards much better investments. Nine out of 10 kids end up in Long Creek only because they have no other place to go. Kids should have other opportunities to turn to. But there aren’t enough of them in the communities.

“As someone who’s been to both an adult prison and a youth detention center, I can honestly say I didn’t see any difference between the two,” he continued. “Sometimes the adult prison seemed more easygoing than the youth prison. You get a little bit more freedom, they give you recreational activities, you get to talk to people. In the youth facility, you’re constantly monitored. The smallest outburst and you’re segregated and made out to be an outcast. You’re also not allowed to have friends. But socialization is part of youth development and if we don’t let them socialize, how do we expect them to function in the real world?”

Both Prue and Adan emphasized the importance of reinvesting in community reintegration programs, particularly mental health services. “We need places where people can go and talk about things and get help, and not have to be stigmatized or put in fear because they’re reaching out for help,” Adan said. “There aren’t enough resources for people to go and seek help.”

Skye Gosselin, MYJ community organizer, discussed Maine Inside Out and its connection with Maine Youth Justice. Maine Inside Out works with incarcerated youth in Long Creek, producing and sharing original theater to inspire social change. “I first started out at Maine Inside Out. In fact, me and a few others from Maine Inside Out were the ones who created the campaign [to close Long Creek]. We did plays on different topics such as racism, poverty, and homelessness. We were inviting all the community members to come into the experiences that we’ve had. We wanted to educate everyone on what was going on in Long Creek. I’ve been part of Maine Youth Justice since its inception roughly two years ago.” Gosselin explained that she and her peers felt the need to create a campaign intended to speak directly to lawmakers and communities, and take action steps to close the Long Creek Center.

LD 1668 proposed Long Creek closure

Last May, Maine Youth Justice proposed bill LD 1668 that called to shut down the Long Creek Youth Development Center and reallocate the funds to community-based integration programs. The bill passed the Maine House by 81 to 57 votes, and the Maine Senate by 19 to 15 votes. However, Gov. Janet Mills vetoed the bill on June 21. Despite the veto, Maine Youth Justice isn’t losing hope. The group plans to mobilize again in the fall.

Mills, a former attorney general and longtime former prosecutor, said in her LD 1668 veto message that the bill “is fundamentally flawed because it forces the closure of the state’s only secure confinement option for juvenile offenders before safe and appropriate alternatives will be available.” In the same message, Mills outlined changes her administration is making to the juvenile justice system such as “shifting $6 million in [Department of Corrections’] juvenile budgetary resources to community-based programs and services; opening two community-based residences, one for boys and one for girls, as transitional living options for youth returning home after a stay at Long Creek Youth Development Center (Long Creek); and shifting funding for 14 vacant positions assigned to Long Creek to programs that promote restorative justice, deliver therapy and other wrap-around services, and establish youth advocacy and mentorship programs.”

The members of Maine Youth Justice are not satisfied with the governor’s response. “The bill was a directive to the Department of Corrections to create a plan to close Long Creek by 2023,” explained Nzeyimana, MYJ’s advocacy coordinator. “We also asked … for the repurposing of the Long Creek building. After acknowledging the harm the facility has imposed on the community and the youth that was incarcerated there, the only alternative is for it to be converted to perhaps a community or a service center. We looked at numerous examples from other states across the country and similar facilities have been repurposed to respond to the needs of the people.”
In February 2021, Maine Youth Justice and Youth First Initiative, a national advocacy organization working to end youth incarceration, published a survey illustrating that an overwhelming majority of Mainers are in support of investing in community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. According to the poll, “59% support closing existing and abstaining from building new youth prisons for a more individualized approach to youth justice, focused on each child’s circumstances and needs rather than immediately placing young people behind bars.”

The same poll found that 85% of Mainers support a youth justice system focused on prevention and rehabilitation, with just 15% preferring a system centered on punishment and incarceration. “The results of this new poll make clear that Mainers across the state recognize the harmful impact that incarceration has on our youth and broader community,” said MYJ Advocacy Director Abdul Ali. “Youth incarceration not only stifles young people’s growth and development, but it is also incredibly traumatizing and dangerous to their mental and physical health.”

MYJ’s community organizer Gosselin said, “We knew that Gov. Mills was going to veto, considering how in the past she claimed that Long Creek was a school. You see how her mindset is different. She claims she vetoed the bill because it didn’t provide for an alternative housing option for the youth in Long Creek. But prison shouldn’t be used as a solution for the lack of available housing. The governor’s role is to ensure that people have access to resources, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness. Not providing an alternative to incarceration to Maine’s most vulnerable youth and allowing them to endure trauma in Long Creek is reprehensible.”
Still determined to close the facility, the group plans to mobilize again in the fall. Together with Maine Inside Out and other organizations with similar goals of ending youth incarceration, Maine Inside Out will throw a block party in Lewiston on September 18. “We want to bring the community together, bring people beyond zoom,” Prue explained. “We will have an open mic so it will be a great opportunity to get your word across, to get a better understanding of where everyone’s coming from, and make a positive impact on people. It’s also a great way to make friends along the way!”