The administration of Republican Governor Paul LePage and the office of Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills didn’t reveal to legislators or the public that a murder at the Maine State Prison in Warren last June occurred in its Mental Health Unit in the supposedly super-secure Special Management Unit or “supermax.”
As a result, the Legislature never considered that relevant fact when — accepting the administration’s argument that some mentally ill patients from the county jails and Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta needed to be put in a more secure place — it voted overwhelmingly in August to pass LD 1515, doubling the Mental Health Unit’s size to 32 cells.
Passed 115 to 8 in the House and without a recorded vote in the Senate, LD 1515 switches $1.4 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Corrections to fund the enlarged unit, starting in February and running through June 30. The next session of the Legislature is expected to continue the funding.
A well-publicized assault by a patient on a Riverview staff member in March launched LD 1515 on its way. But now, a number of “forensic” mental patients will be sent to a place shown to be murderous. (“Forensic” means under court authority.)
Because the original version of the bill required a new appropriation, it was put on hold in the regular legislative session that ended in June. It was relaunched and passed in a special session after the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) threatened to cut $20 million it gives to Riverview annually, citing safety concerns, inadequate staffing, and management problems.
The cut occurred anyway. The final irony: as LD 1515 was ultimately written, it does little with Riverview patients. It’s mostly about the county jails.
The expanded prison unit will hold mentally ill jail inmates being examined, evaluated, or treated — including those who have not been convicted of a crime but haven’t been able to make bail — and those whom the jails simply consider dangerous.
Patients at Riverview also may be sent to the prison unit for observation or if they commit a crime while at the state hospital. But Augusta’s state senator, Roger Katz, the Republican assistant minority leader, said he understands only one patient at Riverview qualifies to be sent to Warren.
Senator Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat and head of the Health and Human Services Committee, said that she was “shocked” to hear from this reporter that the murder had taken place in the prison’s Mental Health Unit. If such violence is allowed in the prison unit, she asked, how can such a place help people sent there to be “stabilized”?
Peter Stuckey, a Portland Democrat who voted against LD 1515, also said he hadn’t heard that the murder occurred in the Mental Health Unit. “You mean the place we’re sending these non-adjudicated people to get better?” he commented, with irony. No other legislators contacted had known where the murder had occurred.
The fact that it occurred in the Mental Health Unit was confirmed by Phillip Cohen, the attorney for Guy Hunnewell, the inmate accused of the killing. Several prisoners told the Phoenix it happened in the unit’s outdoor exercise area. Hunnewell, 42, allegedly beat Alan Powell, 57, to death with an electric guitar. He has pleaded not guilty because of insanity. Both men were in prison for murder.