Today in Augusta two demonstrations were held by the organization Maine Youth Justice. The first of these demonstrations was at the capital in Augusta where the halls could be seen packed with young people speaking to legislators and distributing information packets. At 11:00 am the group then assembled at the state judicial center down the street where a task force was having a meeting to decide which reforms would be made to the Long Creek youth detention center in southern Maine. The group is calling for a full closure of the facility and an end to youth incarceration in the state. They advocate for divestment from the prison system and demand that those monies be instead used for evidence-based community programs which are understood to be more effective than incarceration. Within the literature provided to legislators today contained not just their demands, but also the reasoning behind them. In this article, I will do my best, to describe what was distributed today and summarize the day’s events. Additionally, the videos above contain unedited footage of the entire rally as well as several interviews that were conducted at the judicial center. For anyone who is interested, the above videos contain the entirety of the demonstration so readers can watch what took place themselves.
The group provided two pieces of literature today and the first is titled “It’s Time For A New Vision Of Youth Justice”. Within the booklet, they call for complete closure of the facility by 2021 and reinvestment of the $18.2 million dollars that is spent on youth incarceration annually into a “community-based continuum of care that puts young people and their communities at the center of the process.” They describe how each year approximately $300,000 is spent to incarcerate each young person at this facility, often for minor nonviolent crimes, and evidence has shown the length of incarceration often experienced does not at all reduce recidivism in these communities. In January, the group held nine community visioning sessions across the state with youth directly affected by this system. These sessions were paramount to facilitating the creation of a blueprint to demand measurable change and ensure that those affected are at the forefront of the discussion. Many findings from these sessions indicated a dire need for housing, mental health services, community centers, and recreation. They will release the full report this spring.
In the second booklet entitled “A New Vision For Youth Justice In Maine”, the group presents their demands which ultimately equate to solutions to systemic problems that have existed for years. The first listed solution is to invest in communities. Maine Youth Justice states that this begins with acknowledging that poverty and lack of opportunity are a driving force behind youth incarceration. By transforming communities we give youth a chance to thrive. By increasing access to supports and services individuals can receive the help they need to recover from childhood trauma that often is a factor in why many people struggle at a young age. Within this solution, housing is highlighted as a very important aspect, and where many young people are homeless or have unstable housing this affects communities’ ability to thrive. The group insists that the state create a policy to push landlords to accept housing assistance programs as well as create programs that would promote homeownership.
The second solution listed is reimagining the role of the police. The group ” wants to live in communities free of police surveillance and over-surveillance.” They explain that by training community members to be first responders police do not need to be the first phone call made when a family experiences a crisis situation. They state that students would feel safer with police officers removed from schools and likewise in their neighborhoods. As they put it, “when people respond in a way that recognizes a person’s humanity and worth, we can help de-escalate situations and prevent further harm.”
The third solution listed is investing in ‘credible messengers’, which are people who have shared experiences and can act as effective mentors for youth throughout the state. A program like this allows both the mentor and mentees to further useful skills and allows for community growth that spans generations. These types of mentors use comfort, clarification, care, and caution to teach youth how to heal and function without being impacted by the system. Likewise, programs like these create opportunities for community members impacted by the system to earn a living doing work that directly improves the community they live in. Credible messengers also help people who feel alienated from society find their place, feel included, and be a part of something positive.
Shutting down the school-to-prison-pipeline is the fourth solution presented and essentially boils down to equal opportunities. Where many indigenous and LGBTQ youth, and youth of color in the school system report their experience as demoralizing, this negatively impacts their lives needlessly. By teaching useful life skills and connecting students to internships our education system can ensure everyone’s future economic success while also building strong communities. By striving for smaller class sizes, educators can build stronger relationships with students and likewise by transforming curriculums we can ensure that students are taught things that are both true and relevant to their lives. They advocate mandating cultural competency training for teachers so they are best equipped to acknowledge culturally different learning methods while creating a truly inclusive environment for LGBTQ youth and youth of color. They add that by ending suspensions and expulsions this would save money that is currently spent on costly public services and instead use it for resources that will help young people with the root causes of what they are experiencing.
The group’s fifth solution is to fund programs to divert youth from arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. They explain that where different communities have different needs, a “one-size-fits-all” approach is ineffective. Creating community-based alternatives protect youth from deep, long-term involvement in the judicial system while allowing communities to decide what will work best for them. These diversion programs should not “widen the net” as they explain. Instead of sending youth further downstream for struggling with the mandates these programs should address the needs of individuals and families and train communities to address the root causes of what people struggle with. By equipping these programs with the ability to identify trauma they allow for this support system to dismantle the trauma, facilitating recovery.
In their sixth solution, they explain that when a child truly is unsafe in the community it may be necessary to utilize a secure facility. It has been found that it’s actually a rarity that this is truly necessary and that confinement of any young person in excess of six months does more harm than good. By utilizing small community-based residential programs youth can remain in a home-like environment with four or fewer other individuals. Facilities like these allow for a more individualized process focused on treatment instead of punishment. In community-based programs the residents know each other and this allows for a less traumatic experience where healing can occur. The goal of programs like these is to evaluate the needs of a child, assess trauma, and create a plan for success that results in their returning to the community at large capable of success. Within this too is the push to bring all youth home from out of state placements so they can receive the assistance they need in their own communities.
The group also advocates creating a new cabinet-level agency to take responsibility for youth justice and community reinvestment. Instead of having the Department of Corrections oversee this process they would like to see the funding that is currently spent on Long Creek put into a savings account and allocated for reinvestment. The new agency would be required to prioritize transparency and community accountability. Additionally, they would be obligated to work with youth and community partners to create a process that ensures the community is involved in deciding how reinvestment dollars are spent. Organizers state that they feel the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Department of Corrections, have failed our youth, their families, and communities across Maine. For this reason, they are adamant that these agencies should not be in charge of deciding where funds are spent, nor should they be in charge of overseeing the funds themselves.
The last solution suggested is the repurposing of the building itself. Where some members wished to see it demolished, others feel that by utilizing the building for a positive purpose it can become a symbol of healing for the state. The group strongly believes that it should not be converted into a new women’s prison. What they are suggesting is removing part of the building, modifying the layout, and converting it to become either a community center or affordable housing. To symbolize a transition from the brutality and trauma that has historically occurred in the facility, creating something that improves the community would be reminiscent of the types of reforms being advocated. Both affordable housing and community centers would resolve the root causes of what affects our youth and in this way repurposing the building would likely do more good for the community than its current use.
The demonstrations held today were nothing short of inspirational. Youth from all across the state came together, organized, and have shown that they are intent on keeping up the momentum until things change. Clearly motivated by love and compassion these young people clearly understand how the world works and what changes could improve it. They showed today that they too have power and are not afraid to exercise it if that’s what it takes to better their communities and look after their friends. Attending this today I often found myself both speechless and teary-eyed as it truly is encouraging to see young people stand up for justice with such conviction. To see young people take charge and become community leaders dedicated to helping each other truly gives me hope. So much that it is quite difficult to put words to the amount of gratitude and respect I have for these brave individuals. Knowing personally many people who were traumatized at Long Creek, its time we take the steps suggested by our youth and accept that what we are doing currently is only holding people back from fulfilling their dreams in life. Likewise, it’s time we recognize the wisdom and capability that our youth possess and recognize that they too hold answers to many of the structural failings of many institutions in modern society.