Three years ago, a coalition of young people, community organizations, and advocates organized to launch Maine Youth Justice. After the deaths of young people inside the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, as well as of those released from the facility, it was clear that the only path forward was to fight for the closure of Maine’s last youth prison and for the reinvestment of its operating costs into community resources for young people.
As one of the campaign’s founders, I’ve spent the last three years watching lawmakers listen to young people’s collective trauma and lived experience from incarceration, while the legislators continue to invest millions of dollars in taxpayer resources into the very violent systems that harmed us. I was 12 years old the first time I was introduced to the juvenile justice system and have spent my entire adult life fighting Maine Youth Justice care and resources for young people. Youth are at risk every single day Long Creek remains open.
Long Creek never taught me anything. It claims that it’s a “development center,” but the only thing it is developing is post-traumatic stress disorder. What I needed instead of Long Creek was someone to have helped me that first day — someone who believed my side of the story before jumping to conclusions. Instead, I watched youth ripped from their communities, placed in isolation, and receiving little or no care. Kids need to feel cared for, not as if they are just another case with numbers at the top.
When young people are incarcerated, we begin to see ourselves as society treats us — as outcasts, driving us further into a life unsupported by our community. The trauma does not stop once you leave detention. Your family and friends have all moved on. There is no catching up on your education and the state provides few resources to support the acclimation. Young people leave incarcerated settings so traumatized that they’ve lost an understanding of human interaction, including how you handle conflict or connect with people. There is no going back to how it was before incarceration and we as young people are stuck dealing with the pain that was forced upon us in a failed attempt at justice.
We cannot continue to waste millions of dollars to maintain a prison that harms vulnerable young people. In 2020, 30 percent of Mainers experiencing homelessness were 24 or younger. Marginalized communities like LGBTQ youth and youth in poverty were also 120 and 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness, respectively. If we truly care about supporting youth, we must be investing state resources in community-based housing programs, not prisons. We need investments in education, healthcare and support programs for Maine’s youth. What we truly need is a plan to close Long Creek and renovate the 40+ acres of property in South Portland into housing and a mental-health resource hub.
Governor Janet Mills continues to be an obstacle in building a future where all Maine youth thrive. While young people and communities have called on Gov. Mills to close this facility, she has continued to ignore us. This is something that causes concern as she runs for a second term in office. We have the resources to invest in our most vulnerable communities, to truly save lives, and Gov. Mills is looking the other way instead of working with us on solutions. Gov. Mills must listen to our demands by creating a plan to close Long Creek.
The fight to close Long Creek has been going on for decades, with countless numbers of young people, their families, and their communities unnecessarily harmed by reliance on incarceration.
Maine spends $42 million a year to incarcerate and police youth; 2022 is more than ever the opportune time to end this nightmare and build something new.
Skye Gosselin is a twenty-three-year-old activist from Biddeford and the Organizing Director for Maine Youth Justice. She is one of the founders of the campaign and leads a statewide youth political education program for youth impacted by the criminal legal system. Skye believes young people are the experts on what they need and envisions a world where youth are listened to instead of isolated.