News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Up Long Creek Without a Paddle

by | Sep 6, 2019

photo/Patrick Bonsant

They call it The Spine, a long, desolate hallway inside the Long Creek Youth Development Center, out behind the jetport in South Portland. I was walking down The Spine one day, many years ago, when I encountered a young man — a boy, really — walking toward me, accompanied by a guard.

“Hey, how are you doin’?” I asked in an upbeat tone.

The boy looked up at me. “How the fuck do you think I’m doing?” he shot back. “I’m in prison.”

He was correct. Long Creek is not a “center” dedicated to the “development” of youth. It’s a prison for children that does more harm than good to the underage inmates; their families, who are scattered all over Maine; and the state itself.

Administered by the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC), Long Creek is a colossal mistake. It’s actually a prison for victims. While it’s true that most child prisoners there allegedly committed a criminal offense, the vast majority — as many as 90 percent, according to national studies — are victims of childhood trauma, including the crimes of physical and sexual abuse. Nearly all of them also suffer the common consequences of childhood trauma, mental illness and addiction, which in turn lead to their run-ins with the law.    

A reasonably compassionate society would recognize this fact and give these kids the support they need to get their lives back on track. We do not live in a society like that. Here in Maine, we’re governed by a former prosecutor and attorney general, Janet Mills, who’s sent uncounted thousands of children into a prison system that she, along with everyone else in the criminal “justice” field, knows to be a brutal and broken institution that’s feeding, rather than fixing, the root causes of juvenile crime. 

I facilitated a writing and public-speaking project for teens at Long Creek back in 2006, and witnessed many of the prison’s endemic problems firsthand. The situation at Long Creek in the 1990s was dreadful — in 1998, it prompted Amnesty International to launch a campaign protesting the overuse of torturous restraints and prolonged isolation at the prison. This past April, the state agreed to pay half a million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by a young man (imprisoned in 1995, when he was 13, at what was then called the Maine Youth Center) who claims those practices worsened his preexisting mental illness.

Reforms were promised in the late ’90s, and even implemented to some extent, but during the decade since I was there the situation seems to have gotten worse.

In September of 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, based in Washington, D.C., released an explosive report that exposed many of the institutional failings I observed, as well as a slew of fresh horrors. We’ve posted a highlighted copy of that report here, but here’s a brief overview: 

• Bloody violence is part of daily life for the children locked inside Long Creek. Kids attack other kids and assault staff, and the child prisoners routinely try to kill themselves or inflict self-harm severe enough to warrant attention from medical or clinical personnel, which is often the point of such desperate behavior: to get more personal attention from a caring adult. “[I]ncidents involving fights, assaults, suicidal behaviors or self-harm occur on average about twice a day at the facility (average of 57 per month),” the report states. During the short, dreary month of February 2017, there were 71 reported incidents, an average of over 2.5 per day; in sunny July of that year, there were 69.

• Guards continue to assault the children and practice isolation and restraint techniques deemed inhumane, harmful or potentially fatal. During just the few months the report’s authors were on site observing staff in person and via video, they witnessed two disturbing incidents. While attempting to subdue a child inmate, “one staff [member] lost control and punched the youth in the back and in the thigh.” In the second incident, two beefy guards rushed into an 11-year-old’s cell and “seriously injured the youth,” knocking out his two front teeth, according to the report, which adds that the men “clearly used excessive force.” (The boy’s mother, a Somali refugee, says the guards “bashed” her son Ali’s face into a metal bed frame, and that prison officials subsequently denied the child dental care for nearly a week. She’s also suing the DOC, among many other defendants.)        

• Long Creek is severely understaffed. Turnover is high and morale is in the gutter. Most guards have no experience or training working with youth before they’re hired, and once there, many don’t learn the skills necessary to safely interact with kids in mental distress. For example, both the boys assaulted by guards during the incidents mentioned above “have serious mental disorders” that clearly caused the disruptive behavior that led to their beatings, the report asserts.      

• Long Creek staff routinely force children to submit to strip searches without probable cause. Boys held in some cells have cameras pointing at the toilet that can be monitored by female guards. Gay and transgender kids are subjected to humiliation and discrimination by staff. In 2016, a 16-year-old transgender prisoner committed suicide inside Long Creek.    

• The education kids at Long Creek receive is so lacking that it may itself be illegal. Over 85 percent of the kids there in 2017 had received “special education services” prior to their incarceration, according to the report, and the majority of those kids “had a history of emotional or behavioral problems associated with their [learning] disability.” Due to staffing shortages, boys in the prison “receive about half of the required instructional minutes per day” and “girls were not consistently receiving a full-day of instruction.” The report’s authors warned that this leaves both the DOC and the Maine Department of Education “vulnerable to legal challenges for failure to provide an adequate education program for students in general, and for the more than 80% of the students eligible for special education services.”

• Recreational and enrichment programs are also inadequate, further hampering the youths’ development. “The team did not observe many games, cards, paper, or writing materials on living units,” the report stated. “Many youth expressed boredom and frustration with the lack of recreational options on their units other than TV or books.”

That’s where I tried to help.

photo/Patrick Bonsant

It was June of 2006, and after a decade in the public-school trenches teaching English, I was disillusioned and burnt out. I’d always been intrigued by the idea of working with young students in prison, so when a colleague from Teachers College, the graduate school for education at Columbia University, called to talk about a publishing project he’d developed for kids jailed at Rikers Island, we decided to pursue a similar initiative in Maine. Founded in 2002 by my friend, Dr. Erick Gordon, the Student Press Initiative (SPI) teaches teachers how to use oral-history techniques and book publishing to empower youth to tell their stories in their own voices.  

My first stop was the office of Long Creek Superintendent Rodney “Rod” Bouffard. Bouffard, who later became warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren and is now an associate commissioner at the DOC, struck me as an interesting character. He wore a leather jacket, indoors and out, regardless of the season, and his mannerisms brought to mind a mashup of Elvis and a gangster from Goodfellas. I was ushered into his office and invited to sit on a low chair facing the superintendent’s desk. Even while sitting behind it, Bouffard towered over me. The effect was clearly intentional. 

Bouffard was intrigued by my pitch. Prisons are notoriously secretive, but the opportunity for some positive publicity seemed attractive at the time. He expressed some skepticism about the project’s funding, and I assured him that SPI, a nonprofit, would be responsible for its costs. Following some further assurances, Bouffard gave his consent and the project commenced.

My education at Long Creek also began that day. Lesson No. 1: The low esteem, and even lower expectations, administrators and staff have for the children in their charge. For example, I’ll never forget the reaction I got when I suggested building raised garden beds and growing food on the verdant, security-fenced field between the prison and the eponymous creek. Smug looks and expressions of exasperated condescension passed between the staff. Didn’t I realize these kids were criminals? Imagine what they might do with rakes and hoes in their hands!

There were some well-intentioned people working at the prison, but it was clear that most adults regarded the children as dangerous and untrustworthy, a perception these impressionable kids internalized to their own detriment. Over the course of the project, I was summoned to Bouffard’s office several times to receive his words of wisdom from on high. He once warned me to be careful because one of my students was running “Portland’s gangs” from Long Creek. “Portland has gangs?” I asked, incredulous. (For the record, youth gang violence has not been a significant problem in the Forest City this century.)

My first task was to recruit students to take part in the project. I put out the word in the prison’s “classrooms,” and over a dozen teens expressed interest. Some were aspiring writers. Others were just bored and looking for something new to do. When I visited Long Creek outside classroom hours, I invariably found kids slumped in couches and chairs in the pod, watching trashy reality TV shows like Big Brother and Judge Judy.

The participating students were split into two groups, and I met with each group for an hour, three times a week. Though I initially detected some enthusiasm, the fail-safe response of these kids was to feign detachment. It took me a while, but I came to understand why: to engage emotionally was to risk feeling disappointed, and these kids had heard too many broken promises before they even got there.  

“I got a few friends in here. I try not to let anybody get too close,” wrote a student identified as Z (for legal reasons, all the participants wrote under nicknames or pseudonyms). “It makes you vulnerable and that can hurt you. … That’s just how it is. I don’t know if that will ever change for me.”

“Part of my anger is from being promised so much by people, parents, family … and then not getting it,” wrote another student, Karma, a black boy raised in poverty. “Stuff like games and clothes. I used to get all these promises all the time and after a while I just didn’t believe in the promises anymore. I said f___ it, I’ll get it on my own and that’s when I started stealing and getting in trouble.”

The tactic I used to counter the kids’ indifference was simple and effective: I was genuinely interested in their lives, and I let it show. The world made them feel insignificant and invisible. I made it clear that they mattered to me.

The staff’s response to the project was a mix of cynicism and bemusement. “Oh, you’re that guy from Columbia,” they’d say, as if my degree were proof of my hopeless naivety. The idea of these kids writing a book struck some staff members as downright hilarious. But in my classroom, I quickly realized these students were every bit as bright, inquisitive, hopeful and motivated as any group of kids I’d taught in my career.

We had some guidelines. The goal was to empower the young authors to share their stories with the world, but they were not to glamorize the crimes that led to their incarceration. This was partly for legal reasons, but more significantly, it was intended to encourage these kids to begin thinking about themselves as more than criminals.  

We started with in-class writing assignments using prompts to get the ideas flowing. “How do other people perceive you?” one prompt began. “The day you ended up at Long Creek, what did people see when you walked in? Tell the story through the eyes of another person on your ward/floor when you arrived.” “Your behavior at Long Creek has been so exemplary it has earned you early release AND resulted in the State of Maine appointing you as the new Superintendent of the Long Creek prison,” read another prompt. “What changes would you make to the institution?” A third asked, “What is dignity and how does one maintain it while incarcerated?” 

“When I started high school, the day I went in there, the principal brought me into her office and told me, ‘I heard you’re going to be nothing but trouble,’” wrote a student called Tweak. “And after that it seems like I could never get her trust back, ever. I felt like I was already being labeled as a bad kid and it just felt real empty inside. … I didn’t feel like a person, really.”

The next step was to bring in a small team of educators and oral historians from Teachers College and Columbia. The team spent two days conducting long interviews with each student. Their questions were designed to elicit stories about the inmates’ lives. The interviews were taped and transcribed, resulting in 15 to 30 pages of raw material for each student to shape into their final draft.      

As I read and helped transcribe the interviews, common themes emerged: broken homes, poverty, violence, neglect, truancy, and drug and alcohol abuse.

“I remember the day that I got adopted. I was six and I had a suit on,” wrote Dazed and Confused. “Because I had been to five or six different foster homes, I was used to moving around a lot, so it was kind of strange to think that I’d be living in one place for the next ten or twelve years. I ended up in here (Long Creek), but who knows what might have happened if I had stayed in foster care? Or if I had stayed with my biological family? I might have gotten into drugs even deeper than I did and I could have ended up here a lot younger. I see kids in this place that are like twelve years old. It’s crazy.”

Several of the students were parents themselves, and the teen moms and dads were determined to give their kids a better life than they’d had so far. “I think I have finally outgrown the drugs and the alcohol and the fights and everything in between,” wrote Julio, a 19-year-old from Portland. “That’s not who I want to be anymore. I want to be a good dad … and a good husband. … I want to raise and take care of my family.”

It took over a week to transcribe the tapes, and our classes kept meeting in the meantime, but the students were getting restless and bored. Some expressed doubt that the project would result in anything real.

The day I arrived in class with the completed transcripts was a revelation. The students were giddy with excitement. Here, at last, was verification that they were not invisible. These stories were testaments to their existence.

The students’ fierce pride of authorship was both charming and disarming. I encouraged them to expand and clarify some parts of their oral histories. My changes mostly involved cleaning up grammatical errors, but editing is rarely a painless process for any author — Raymond Carver once threatened suicide when Gordon Lish “trimmed” his short stories. One student announced in class, “Bill, if you change one more word of my story, I’m going to kill you.”  

Once we’d chiseled each piece into a five-to-six page narrative, we were ready to show this work to the world. The bemusement of some Long Creek staff had by then turned to confusion, disdain, and even outright hostility. After reading the students’ rough drafts, the head of the school at Long Creek told me with venomous disgust, “These kids did not write these stories.” But they had.

In the students’ narratives, declarations of hope and redemption were interspersed with harrowing accounts of life inside and outside Long Creek. “There was so much violence in this place, everybody hitting everybody, fights, kids cutting themselves up,” wrote 2 Deep. “I’ve seen a kid pop one of his main arteries out of his arm with a pencil and just start pumping his arm and squirting blood all over the ceiling of his cell, and he ended up having like two inches of blood on the bottom of the floor. The paramedics came and the cops came and they took him away on a stretcher and he was laughing and it was just so sick and twisted, you know? Some of the stuff that you see here will change you forever.”   

I witnessed numerous incidents of staff verbally abusing inmates during the months I taught at Long Creek. And though I didn’t see any staff physically assault a child, I saw the result of their jaded indifference to the prison’s pervasive culture of violence.  

One day I heard the inmates murmuring about a fellow prisoner who’d allegedly “snitched.” A youngster told me that X, one of my student writers, was “a dead man” because he’d shared information with authorities in an attempt to get his sentence reduced. I immediately went to the administration and shared my concerns. Those concerns were met with chuckles. I was told not to worry, that X could take care of himself.

When I showed up the next day, I asked about X and was told he’d been transferred to another wing. I went to see him there. His face resembled an overripe eggplant.

The use of prolonged solitary confinement to punish child prisoners was supposed to have been discontinued in the wake of the Amnesty International scandal two decades ago. But the authors of the 2017 Center for Children’s Law report cited records indicating frequent violations of this rule. Once, when a student was missing from our writing class, I was told he had been placed in “solitary.” I went up to see him and bring him some reading material. The almost absurdly muscle-bound employee at the front desk was clearly unhappy I was there. He allowed me to visit with my student, but as soon as we started chatting the guard started screaming: “Shut the fuck up in there! No talking allowed!” I guess we were supposed to use sign language.  

The students’ excitement was palpable as they polished up their work in preparation to read their stories at the big public event we’d scheduled in Portland. I’d caught glimpses of the “education” they were getting in other classrooms. For instance, it appeared that much of the time in math class was spent solving Sudoku puzzles. My students worked hard because, as most wrote, they hoped their stories would inspire other kids to take a different path in life, to learn from their mistakes.

It was at this late stage that I began hearing rumblings from the prison administration about “confidentiality.” At the start of the project, all the students had signed permission slips to share their work in a published collection and at the public reading, but suddenly these forms were deemed inadequate. It seems some higher-ups in the state’s prison bureaucracy were getting nervous as it became clear our little project was more than a pipe dream. The letter from Superintendent Bouffard read, “The publication cannot be released until the proper consent forms are signed through this office. … As well, no interviews, further press releases, or information to the public is to be given out without the consent forms signed.”

The SPI team and I were eventually able to mollify the prison administrators’ additional concerns. Once all the students’ stories were read and approved by the administration, Bouffard finally told us we could begin printing the book. Except the administrators hadn’t read all the stories, at least not very carefully. 

A day after receiving Bouffard’s approval to start the presses, I was summoned to his office and told we could not publish the stories after all, because one of the students had described an episode when a guard would not allow him to use the bathroom. This would have been a violation of the child’s civil rights, we were informed, so it could not be included in the book. The pages had already been printed, so we were compelled to destroy the first print run of Smoke Signals: Oral Histories from Long Creek, at a cost of about $3,400. We formally requested that Long Creek reimburse SPI for this very avoidable expense, since, as we wrote to the administration, “Long Creek failed to follow its own internal protocol regarding permissions and the review of student work.” Prison officials didn’t even deign to respond.

As we made final arrangements for the public event, Long Creek administrators threw another curveball at the kids’ heads: students could not read their own work, but would be allowed to read another student’s story. When I broke this news to my young writers, they exploded. A big part of their motivation had been to help others through their stories. If they couldn’t read their own work, they’d rather not read at all. So the team and I pressed our case with prison officials again, and they grudgingly relented.  

When the big day arrived, One Longfellow Square was packed — so many people showed up that some had to watch through the windows from outside. The students displayed remarkable poise as they read their stories, and the impact on the audience, which included many family members, was visceral. Afterward, Eric Gilliam, Long Creek’s assistant superintendent, told me the reading was the best thing for kids he’d seen in 30 years of working in youth services. 

Some weeks later, on a visit to drug court with one of my student authors, I was pulled aside by an officer of the court who praised the work we’d done with Smoke Signals. He then asked me, rather ominously, what the repercussions had been from Long Creek staff and administrators. “They will come after you,” he warned.

The project generated a wave of positive publicity for the prison, including a front-page feature story in Portland’s daily paper and a half-hour documentary aired on Maine Public Radio. My colleagues at SPI and I made it clear to prison officials that we wanted to continue the work we’d begun. Those officials made it equally clear that the doors of Long Creek were no longer open to SPI or to myself. To the best of my knowledge, no similar project has even been attempted there since.

A view inside Long Creek. photo/F Stephen Wood, from Smoke Signals

Reading the Center for Children’s Law report from two years ago, it’s astounding to realize Long Creek has failed to appreciably improve even after all the scandals, the suicide, and the mounting pile of lawsuits filed on behalf of children mistreated there. But the chorus of people calling for its closure is getting louder.

A growing number of Maine lawmakers are joining groups like the ACLU of Maine and University of Maine School of Law in advocating for more humane and effective ways to help youthful offenders. Last year, the law school’s Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law released a report, in conjunction with the Justice Policy Program at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, calling for a “shift away from reliance on large facilities like Long Creek … towards a continuum of care utilizing community-based in-home services and evidence-based out-of-home services for youth.”

Law-and-order Republican legislators in Augusta are also coming around, in part due to the staggeringly high cost of operating the youth prison. Although its population has declined to an average of about 50 inmates, the 165-bed facility continues to cost Maine taxpayers over $16 million every year. That works out to $320,000 per inmate, per year.

We’re spending all that public money for an institution that fails to keep about half of those released from ending up behind bars again. Long Creek is a “training prison,” as the kids called it, for the Maine State Prison. Research nationwide shows that kids who’ve previously been incarcerated are far more likely to get arrested again, and for more serious crimes, than youth with similar backgrounds who’ve never been locked in a cell.     

In an interview last July with Beacon, a news website run by the Maine People’s Alliance, writer Dan Neumann asked the top Democrat on the Legislature’s Justice and Public Safety Committee, Rep. Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, what should be done with Long Creek. “We should be closing that facility and selling that property — full stop,” Warren said. “We should be emptying that facility of children, which means building community mental health services.

“Maybe there might need to be a youth forensic unit for a very small percentage of kids who are in situations where they actually pose a public safety threat,” Warren added. “But there are not a lot of those [kids].”

Even the people who run Long Creek say many child inmates shouldn’t be there. Staff members told the Center for Children’s Law that up to half those kids could be “released to the community” without adverse consequences.

Trouble is, even if the Legislature takes action to close Long Creek, they’ll have to get the bill past the desk of Governor Mills (or muster a veto-proof super-majority). Mills “came up as a prosecutor,” Warren told Beacon. “She’s been working in a system for a very long time that, quite frankly, has treated her well. She is a cop. She believes in law and order.”

This past June, the state hired the Center for Children’s Law and Policy to convene a task force to study alternatives to incarcerating kids. The group of lawmakers, judges and juvenile-justice experts, which began meeting this summer, is chaired by state Rep. Mike Brennan, the former Portland mayor, who’s also called for the prison to be phased out as alternatives are developed, especially for offenders suffering from mental illness and addiction. The task force will reportedly hold public forums and conduct focus groups before submitting its report to the state early next year. (Brennan did not respond to a request for comment before deadline, but he can be reached at 207-939-6462 or to get your input and provide information about upcoming meetings and forums.)

The inescapable truth is that youth prisons have no role to play in an enlightened society. After over 150 years inflicting trauma on the children of Maine, what more evidence is needed to shut the doors of this destructive and dysfunctional institution? We know the steps necessary to better care for Maine youth in crisis. What we need now is the political courage to overcome the fear-mongers and bureaucrats who’ve built their careers perpetuating this inhumane system.

The politicians won’t do this unless we demand it. It’s high time for us, as a community, to grow a spine.  

Smoke Signals: Oral Histories from Long Creek is available to order through local booksellers.


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