Maine lawmakers mull mental health wing at prison

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A proposal to create a health wing at the Maine State Prison isn’t a long-term fix for a state-run psychiatric hospital riddled with problems causing it to possibly lose $20 million in federal funding next week, advocates for people with mental illnesses told lawmakers on Tuesday.

A special legislative committee is trying to resolve a situation at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, a 92-bed facility in Augusta where Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has threatened to reduce more than half its operating budget by Sept. 2 because of overcrowding, understaffing and its use of correction officers to subdue patients with handcuffs and stun guns.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage is urging lawmakers to approve a bill when they meet for a special session on Thursday to create a mental health wing at the prison, which would accept Riverview patients who need heavier security monitoring. LePage says it will allow the center, which houses many patients who come via court order or jail, to provide a safer environment for staff and better care to its other patients.

But advocates on Tuesday said what the center really needs is more staff and better resources. They also questioned the legality and morality of transferring into a prison setting people who haven’t been criminally charged.

“We have a criminal justice system in this country that decides who belongs in jail or prison, and there are rights that go along with it, constitutional rights,” Zach Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, told the committee. “People who are determined to be incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible are not criminals, and they do not belong in jail or prison.”

The bill will be considered by the Appropriations Committee on Thursday before it’s sent to the full Democratic-controlled-Legislature.

Officials at the center are waiting on the federal government’s response to their proposal to make some of the beds ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare reimbursements and in turn not have to meet some certification standards to save their federal funding ahead of next week’s deadline.

Meanwhile, LePage has been calling on lawmakers to take action on the mental health prison unit bill as a way to ensure the safety of the patients.

“This is a dangerous situation that needs to be resolved immediately,” LePage said last week in his radio address.

But J. Harper, an advocate for the Disability Rights Center who works at Riverview, said the larger concerns raised by the federal government, such as a lack of skilled staff, wouldn’t be resolved. He said Riverview has cut more than half its psychology staff since 2009. He said only about seven patients at Riverview would qualify to be transferred to the prison, leaving behind more than 70 others.

Democratic Rep. Mike Carey of Lewiston told reporters after the hearing: “This seems like trying to exploit a crisis to get something done that (the LePage administration) wanted to get done all along.”

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