Editorial by Senator Anne Haskell from Portland
The state-run psychiatric hospital in Augusta has many, many problems, and Governor Paul LePage’s plan to fix it is to put sick, innocent Mainers in prison. That’s just wrong.
This week, Governor LePage proposed a bill to move patients out of the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, and into the Maine State Prison in Warren. The idea, he said, was to take unruly patients and put them in the prison’s mental health unit. He said the move was necessary for security reasons.
But there’s one big problem with the governor’s plans: These patients, no matter how unruly, have not been convicted of any crime. They aren’t criminals, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. So why would we ever put them in prison? This flies in the face of the very foundation of our justice system.
Our state has been down this road before. Like most states, we have an embarrassing history of treating our mentally ill neighbors like a problem — and one best hidden from the rest of society. We’ve even traveled the dark path of mixing sick Mainers with criminals before.
But we decided decades ago that it was wrong to treat sick people like the guilty. We recognized that no matter how severe a mental illness may be, sick Mainers need treatment and care, not to be locked away.
Hospitals, like Riverview, are designed first and foremost for treatment, with recovery as an outcome. In a correctional setting, the goal is stabilization, so they can be moved back into the general prison population.
The Intensive Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison is a good facility, and the staff there do good work. But it is not designed to meet the needs of non-criminal patients.
We know that Riverview has been badly mismanaged by this administration. That mismanagement has led to chronic understaffing, numerous security incidents, and the loss of federal accreditation. Things have gotten so bad that a Court Master has been charged with oversight of the hospital.
We need solutions to fix Riverview and make it a success, but the governor’s answer is to swap one problem for an entirely different one.
Simply put, criminalizing mental illness is not a solution for the problems at Riverview. The hospital needs more staff, better resources, and a sound turnaround plan.
A real solution may even include the creation of a new, independent unit designed specifically for patients with behavioral issues or violent behavior. But that facility must be a hospital setting, not a correctional one.
As the lead Senate Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee, I will oppose the governor’s bill with all my might. And I’ll urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to do the same.