January 1st, 2014

Prison’s mental health unit is expanded in Maine

A prison-based mental health unit in Maine’s state correctional facility in Warren will see a 16-person staff expansion as part of the state’s plan to address serious issues at one of its psychiatric hospitals.

In September, Gov. Paul Le-Page (R) signed a bill passed by the state legislature to expand the prison’s mental health unit to allow the hospital to send certain forensic patients there. The original plan, which allowed for potentially violent patients who have been determined incompetent to stand trial and those who are being examined to determine competency to be placed in the unit, was amended so that only those pending evaluation can be transferred there.

According to Jody Breton, associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, the new unit is scheduled to open on Feb. 15. Care services will be provided by an outside agency in an enhanced unit.

“The old unit was a stabilization unit, this one will be an intensive mental health treatment unit,” she says. “The prisons and the jails have been unable to get patients into the state’s mental health hospital due to their capacity issues. This solution will allow the state to treat this population more appropriately in a secure environment.”

Not everyone is completely satisfied with the decision to house mental health patients at the prison as a way to address the overcrowding and understaffed conditions at Riverview Psychiatric Center. The hospital recently lost $20 million in federal funding for non-compliance. The final decision came after the prison unit was voted on.

Rep. Joe Brooks (I-Winterport), who spoke to the House before the vote, pleaded with them, he says, not to send mental health patients to a prison unit inside a high security section of a facility that had experienced serious problems including a murder in June.

“This entire proposal was so shocking to me,” he says. “That anybody, particularly the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, would ever consider putting people with mental illness in one of the most secure prisons in New England. If you want extra money to fix the pod at the Maine State Prison, why not fix Riverview itself?”

Zach Heiden, legal director of Maine’s American Civil Liberties Union, says the organization was originally against the proposal but, after many of its specific recommendations were put into the revised plan, decided its best move would be to act as a watchdog to ensure the program was being enacted properly.

“We still have enormous concerns about using prisons as a backstop for an underfunded and poorly managed state mental health system,” he adds. “Many people who will be sent there could receive better treatment in a hospital setting if that hospital was better managed, fully staffed and fully funded.”

Although lawmakers passed the bill, funding was only provided for about six months of operation. Additional money would need to be approved by the legislature at that time.

“The funding is for Feb. 15, 2014 to June 30, 2014,” explains Breton, “If the funding is not continued in fiscal year 2015, the unit would return to a stabilization unit only as we would not be able to contract for the additional services.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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