PORTLAND — Mental illness in jails and correctional facilities has become a huge concern for citizens, lawmakers and criminal justice professionals nationwide.

It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of all incarcerated inmates throughout the United States have a dual diagnosis of mental illness and drug addiction.

In Maine, the proportion of inmates with mental illness and drug addiction in the correctional system is almost 80 percent. This presents a challenge for every correctional facility and for Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta, the one mental health hospital that serves all of our facilities.

Last year, an inmate at the Cumberland County Jail was observed trying to hang himself. Thanks to the quick response of corrections officers, the inmate’s life was saved.

Since the inmate made an attempt to take his own life and repeatedly told the staff that he would eventually take his life if given an opportunity, this inmate became a high priority for transfer to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital.

Riverview Psychiatric Hospital is the only mental health facility in Maine with designated forensic beds (beds for inmates). All correctional facilities in the state must rely exclusively on Riverview for their critical mental health care. However, these forensic beds can also be utilized for the medical community as a whole.

In our case, because of high demand for these limited forensic beds at Riverview, a bed never opened up at Riverview for the inmate. The Cumberland County Jail continued to house the inmate and had to have one corrections officer assigned to observe the inmate 24 hours a day for two months until he was stabilized by our staff.

Mental health crises like these play out in every jail and correctional facility throughout the state. Because of high demand for the few forensic beds that exist, these beds are often occupied by inmates who have been ordered to undergo what’s called a Stage 3 exam, which is an evaluation of their competency to stand trial. Furthermore, a typical competency exam can take 30 to 60 days to complete, causing the turnover for the forensic beds to be quite lengthy.

The Cumberland County Jail is prepared to offer a working solution to this problem. Utilizing our currently unused inmate housing pod, the jail could house up to 44 of the inmates from Riverview who would normally be using the forensic beds for the exams.

This targets the population that consists of inmates who have not exhibited behavior inclined toward violence, or are a danger to themselves. Utilizing the Cumberland County Jail would free the limited number of forensic beds at Riverview for those inmates who are in crisis and exhibit behavior that indicates that they are in imminent danger to themselves.

However, the cost of this specialized unit cannot be funded by the residents of Cumberland County or the Board of Corrections. We currently continue to fight for adequate funding to operate the jail. The project would require proper and adequate funding by the state of Maine.

Opening the closed pod would help alleviate the issue of space faced by Riverview Psychiatric Hospital at a minimal cost. The state would need to fund only basic functional services, such as staffing the pod, utility costs, meal costs, health care costs, mental health staff and miscellaneous equipment updates.

There would be no cost for actual housing. The state would not be required to secure a new building or rent or lease a building; nor would it need to provide for maintenance of a building. In essence, the state would lease the currently empty pod free of charge.

It is apparent that the demands on the services of Riverview Psychiatric Hospital far outweigh the hospital’s current physical ability to meet them. The Cumberland County Jail can alleviate some of that pressure with a pod designed for lower-risk inmates with state-mandated competency examinations. This frees Riverview to serve critical patients, many who may never have been in the jail in the first place, were it not for their mental illness.

Although this idea won’t solve the excessive demands placed on Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, it will certainly help.

— Special to the Press Herald