There are few places in Maine as notorious as the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. The name, itself, is misleading: more like a prison, the very mention of the facility sends shivers up the spines of many who have worked or spent any time there.
Bill Lundgren knows this. But he says that most of the young people who end up at Maine’s Alcatraz for the young are really good, in many cases talented, people.
“They get stigmatized as bad kids, but they really are wonderful kids,” says Lundgren, a former schoolteacher in western Maine who now volunteers at Long Creek.
“You have to look at why they got there, in terms of how society treats young people, to understand why they are like they are.”
Lundgren, in collaboration with the Student Press Initiative (SPI) and the Teachers College at Columbia University, has done just that with Smoke Signals: Oral Histories from Long Creek. The book, penned by 13 former and current students at the correctional facility, will be released on Friday, April 6, at One Longfellow Square (the former Center for Cultural Exchange), where as many as six former students will read excerpts from their personal stories and discuss their lives pre- Long Creek and their unsavory experiences within the facility.
Not surprisingly, says Lundgren (who works as a consultant with SPI), the common denominator in most cases is drugs.
But, regardless of the reason for incarceration, he says that Long Creek, contrary to the belief of many, is not a dead end. Smoke Signals is an example of that, and tapping into the creative energy of young people and giving them the opportunity to be published serves two purposes: to boost their self-confidence (everyone likes to see their work in print), and to serve as a warning signal to even younger people. The book is slated for circulation to high schools throughout the state.
To be sure, the stories are harrowing. Take the guy who had been in and out of foster homes throughout southern Maine and who finally decided he didn’t want to be in group homes anymore. He split for northern Maine where he became a big-time drug dealer, making lots of money and driving a Cadillac. One day a couple thugs stopped by his place and there was a skirmish, so he fired a warning shot in the air that ricocheted into the head of one of the visitors. His epiphany to find God came at the instant he stuck his finger in the guy’s head to stop the bleeding — but his quest toward the light didn’t begin until he got to Long Creek.
The same person goes on to discuss how he was one of the few people to be placed in the high-risk unit. There, he had to witness another youth pop one of the main arteries out of his arm with a pencil and proceed to drench everything in his wake with a steady stream of blood.
Not all the stories exude such carnage, but they are all earnest. And, Lundgren says that everyone who agreed to tell their tale is currently thriving.
“The real power for a lot of these people is having themselves published,” says Lundgren.