AUGUSTA — The LePage administration is reviving a controversial proposal to house some violent or difficult-to-manage mental health patients in a special unit at the Maine State Prison as a way to address safety and staffing concerns at Augusta’s Riverview Psychiatric Center.

The proposal comes at a time when the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is under pressure from state lawmakers and federal regulators to find another option for “forensic” patients sent to Riverview by the courts. But mental health advocates, civil liberties groups and some lawmakers quickly denounced the proposal, foreshadowing a lively fight in the Legislature.

“We don’t currently criminalize mental illness and that is exactly what this does,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, a Portland Democrat who serves on the committee slated to review the bill. “These are people who have not been found guilty of anything and their route should be one of care, not of punishment.”

In a revival of a proposal first debated in 2013, DHHS is seeking legislative approval to send certain individuals to the Intensive Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren. Such a move would only be an option for people judged by the courts as either “incompetent to stand trial” or “not criminally responsible” and who are violent or pose a danger to others at Riverview, a 92-bed psychiatric hospital.

A committee unanimously endorsed a similar proposal in 2013. However, following stiff opposition from groups concerned about housing psychiatric patients in a prison, the bill was later changed to partially fund an expansion of psychiatric facilities at the prison without allowing forensic transfers from Riverview.

Gov. Paul LePage suggested Monday that the new bill, L.D. 1577, was a chance for the Legislature to fix that vote.

“Legislative committees have asked repeatedly how we rectify the issues facing Riverview and what plans are in place for recertification,” LePage said in a statement. “This bill is an important part of that plan, and had the legislature passed this bill in its original form 2½ years ago, Riverview may be in a different place today. This bill is a chance for the Legislature to help improve the situation at Riverview.”

Riverview’s forensic unit has been under scrutiny since a 2013 federal audit found problems at the facility, ranging from the use of stun guns and pepper spray on patients to improper record-keeping and medication errors. Riverview lost its federal certification and, therefore, its eligibility for an estimated $20 million in federal reimbursements.

DHHS has been trying to regain federal certification ever since. However, some lawmakers, as well as labor unions representing Riverview workers, have accused the department of moving too slowly to address staffing and safety concerns.

“Maine taxpayers have given the administration millions to improve Riverview by hiring additional staff and DHHS needs to show results,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. “The administration’s failures at Riverview do not give it a pass to criminalize mental illness and most likely violate the constitutional rights of these Mainers.”

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, the Chelsea Republican sponsoring the administration’s bill to allow transfers to the Maine State Prison’s mental health unit, turned the tables on those critics. She said the administration “is trying desperately to do whatever they can” to provide care for those who need it while stabilizing Riverview.

“Those who are resisting whatever the department is doing, they haven’t come up with any solutions yet,” said Sanderson, who also serves on the Health and Human Services Committee.

The revived push to utilize the mental health unit at the Maine State Prison generated forceful pushback from outside groups.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of Maine’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said her organization would support a separate, standalone facility where forensic patients could receive hospital-level care overseen by DHHS.

The Maine Department of Corrections, Mehnert said, is focused on prisoner management, not mental health treatment or recovery. As a result, it would be “completely inappropriate” to mix the two populations in a correctional setting, she said.

“We are talking about people who have been ruled by a judge – not by the public – to be ‘not criminally responsible’ or ‘incompetent to stand trial,’ and yet we are talking about taking those two groups of people and putting them in prison,” Mehnert said. “There is no more blatant example of criminalization of the mentally ill that I could think of.”

Oamshri Amarasingham with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said sending people who have not been convicted of a crime to prison “goes against everything our justice system stands for.”

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said the Intensive Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison is already able to accept the forensic patients. The administration is reintroducing the proposal this year in hopes of correcting what it believes was the Legislature’s misstep in 2013.

“Given that the Legislature keeps asking what is the plan (for Riverview), this is a plan that could address one of the major concerns at Riverview,” Edwards said.

Last month, LePage also suggested during a radio interview that forensic patients could be housed at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase the borrowing authorization to expand and rehabilitate the Windham facility from $85 million to $165 million.

Although the administration has yet to release any details of a proposal to house forensic patients in Windham, several elected officials from the town urged lawmakers on Monday not to delay work on the bond authorization bill because considerable work is needed to repair or upgrade buildings that Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick described as “inefficient and in desperate need of replacement.”

It was unclear Monday whether the bill to house forensic patients at the state prison in Warren was connected to – or a separate proposal from – LePage’s suggestion of expanding the mental health unit in Windham. Representatives from the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

 


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