ACLU advises lawmakers not to transfer mental patients to State Prisons

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

September 18th, 2013 

Just recently the current legislature decided to transfer some of Riverview Psychiatric Center’s mentally challenged patients to the state prison in Warren. Riverside is one of two state mental institutions- the other is Dorothea Dix Psychiatric hospital in Bangor. Moving and treating patients at state prisons will cost Maine more, as taxpayers will be paying private fees to treat the inmates. Transferring patients into an environment that could be hostile and foreign to them could also exasperate their conditions.

“There are constitutional protections including the American Disability Act which protects these patients – who are not criminals. The idea that this action – to house these citizens in an prison environment -could somehow be alright is outrageous, and unconstitutional,” said City Councilman Joe Baldacci. “The answer is in front of the legislature. These patients can be treated effectively in an appropriate and highly regarded facility, namely the Dorothea Dix Hospital.”

The Maine American Civil Liberties Union agrees that the proposal, LD 1515, to move of patients to state prisons is unconstitutional.

“The Commissioner of DHHS cannot transfer individuals in her custody who have not been convicted of a crime into a prison… They may find themselves civilly committed, if a judge determines that they pose a serious risk of harm to themselves of others, but they are not a prisoner and they may not be sent to prison,” wrote Zachary L. Heiden, the Legal Director of Maine’s American Civil Liberties Union in a letter sent to the Legislative Appropriations Committee.

“The legislature should be devoting its attention, and its resources, to solving the staffing and management problems that have brought Riverview Psychiatric Hospital to the brink of losing $20 million in federal funding,” added Heiden in his letter.

Dorothea DIx would be the logical place to move these patients while the issues at Riverview are fixed.

Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci has called on the Bangor Legislative Delegation to reverse the 25 percent cut dealt to the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital by the current LePage Administration and the Republican controlled Legislature in 2011. If the funds from the state were restored $4million in federal funds would also be restored.

“For those who think this is a Bangor region issue you would be mistaken— the hospital serves over 350 patients a year. Half of them are from Penobscot County and the other half from all over the State of Maine. It is the only public hospital in the entire State which receives civil commitments and serves everyone regardless of income and insurance,” said Baldacci.

The transfer of persons with a major mental health diagnosis to jails and prisons has been steadily on the increase in America creating difficulties and challenges for numerous communities while the need for local mental facilities escalates.

“After the state budget cut of 25 percent went into effect last year I was informed by the then Superintendent that the hospital is surviving only by the skin of its teeth,” said Baldacci. “At a time when we are dealing with too many untreated people on our streets and in our jails it’s frankly time for legislators to sponsor legislation to reverse these ill considered and unwise cuts at the hospital. As a vital part of that continuum of care, we need to preserve this important safety net and restore adequate funding.”

Maine has relied heavily on boarding homes for housing patients who left the Bangor and Augusta psychiatric hospitals. This plan has had mixed results. The campus at Dorothea Dix could also be used to house patients as they transition back to society.

“You have to give patients continuity and a safe environment so they have an honest chance to become part of their community again. We have an opportunity to show a way for a better system than to shut away mentally challenged citizens into prisons,” said Baldacci.

City Councilor Joe Baldacci serves as co-chair of the Dorothea DIx Advisory Committee with current Council Chair Nelson Durgin. This Committee has been working to utilize thousands of square feet of currently vacant space at the hospital to potentially serves as transitional housing for patients, and to reduce the time many patients have to wait for adequate housing before they are released from the hospital.

“Our committee brought together leaders in communities across northern Maine, law enforcement, medical, and social services to make sure Dorothea Dix would continue to benefit patients, and their loved ones, who have relied on the hospitals quality of care regardless of income or insurance,” said Baldacci.

Baldacci believes there are real solutions, which can be found by working together with state and local officials as well as care givers and concerned citizens to improve mental health care in the region and the entire state.

“We still need real discussion on how to improve our current system of mental health-care services and ongoing treatment on a state and federal level,” said Baldacci. “I want to make sure that happens.”