Lock-up lessons

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 14, 2011

The curriculum is tailored to the kids’ needs. English teacher Katelyn Virmalo uses novels like Sherman Alexie’s Flight, whose protagonist, according to one reviewer, is “the essence of troubled adolescence.”

Phil Smith says individual attention is one of the school’s strong points. In a two-student writing class — one of the school’s Southern Maine Community College offerings — E.J. Rosario, 19, of North Waterboro, is learning, he says, “to put thoughts down in an organized way.” Rosario, who says he got into trouble because of drug addiction and stealing, aims to attend SMCC when he finishes his one-year Long Creek stint.

Extracurricular activities include the Maine Inside Out theater program, which brings in “facilitating artists” to organize student-acted and -written plays put on for families and friends. (See “Theater Workshop Brings Long Creek Kids Out of Their Shells,” by Deirdre Fulton, April 1.) The school newspaper has the usual sports news, horoscopes, and drawings and poems, but also, in one issue, a page of regrets: “I wouldn’t have tried to go into that house,” writes one student.

In the big gym or on the playing fields outside, residents have at least an hour of exercise a day. The basketball team goes to state class “D” tournaments. There’s cross-country running and boys’ soccer and, this spring, outdoor track.

Another part of the “habilitation” of these adolescents is strengthening ties to family and community.

Just by being in Long Creek, “Your prognosis is worse,” says O’Neill. You’re in a high-risk category, and statistics demonstrate detention centers can be a school for crime if the adolescent stays too long. Bouffard says, “After nine months you’ve got to be careful about diminishing returns.”

So the goal is to treat the kid and get him back to family and community as swiftly as possible. Family members are encouraged to visit as many as three times a week. This is made easier because nearly all Long Creek residents are from Cumberland and York counties.

The reintegration of kids into family and community is helped by what is known as indeterminate sentencing. In a phased process, kids are released when the staff determines they’re ready to go. This “makes our program work,” says O’Neill. The process begins when a resident goes outside with a supervisor, then on limited and eventually long passes, and then to work and school on the outside. In contrast, the adult system ended indeterminate sentencing in the 1970s when parole was repealed, and the Warren prison is far from Maine’s population centers.

“Every one of these kids gets released to the community,” O’Neill points out, stressing how important it is to transform them before their release. This attitude, too, contrasts with Maine's adult system. While approximately 95 percent of inmates are released, little effort is made to transform them or reintegrate them into the outside world.

With so many disturbed kids, Long Creek still has its struggles. On average there are about six attempts at suicide each year. There’s a five-cell solitary-confinement section, the Special Management Unit, which in contrast to the rest of the center looks like a prison pod.

But it's little used now. On a recent day, only one slim young man is in it. Allowed out of the cell to speak with this reporter, he says he is there while he gets his medications straightened out — meaning until they can stabilize his behavior.

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