Locking up the mentally ill

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 3, 2014

Michael’s sentence of 12 years in prison was extraordinarily stiff for his crimes — especially, for an 18-year-old. “I’m sad to say,” Crowley announced, “that I think incarceration is in the interests of public safety and overrides all of the other factors this court has in considering sentence.”

In an unsuccessful appeal scrawled in pencil, Michael pathetically wrote the court, in a world-class understatement: “I have not had a very good childhood.”

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MICHAEL JAMES At Riverview Pyschiatric Center; photo by Lance Tapley.

BACK AND FORTH

When he was delivered to Riverview in mid-2007 from the torment of the Supermax, Michael seemed almost ecstatic. But he did not stay happy.

In December, 2007, his assertive voice on my answering machine wanted me to report on “the abuse that we receive in here and the negativity and the trauma that some of us go through on a regular basis. Thank you and have a great holiday season.”

The hospital’s records (which Michael gave me access to) show that he often threatened others and threatened to commit suicide. They also note his head banging and diagnoses of intermittent explosive disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Between 2008 and 2010 he spent several periods of months at a time in jail and prison stemming from assaults and property destruction. “I don’t even know why I hit the staff I did,” he told me at one point.

The notes on Michael also reveal him to be — mixed with his fierce demands — open, polite, well-spoken, and even “jovial.” In 2011, he acted much better under the influence of Clozaril, an antipsychotic drug. He successfully petitioned the court to leave Riverview to go on supervised shopping trips, to Planet Fitness, and to ball games in Portland.

The judge, Donald Marden, remarked in court that Michael was believed to be impossible to treat, “but they’ve kept right at it,” congratulating hospital staff and Michael. Justice Marden also observed that the prison’s tools to treat Michael are “counterproductive.”

But Michael’s behavior deteriorated. Last December he threatened Riverview staff members with a chain wrapped around his fist. He wound up hurting only himself, cutting his arm and slamming his head hard against a door. He called me a few days later, saying “my brain is really messed up.” He was fined $200 for the threats.

PRISON FOR THE SICK

At an Augusta public forum last fall, Joseph Fitzpatrick, then clinical director and now newly appointed as acting commissioner of the Corrections Department, mentioned the “massive influx” of mentally ill people into Maine’s prisons.

Not only has this national trend manifested itself in Maine because of the inadequacy of community mental-health treatment, but also because of the widely recognized inadequacy — the small size, the staff shortages and turnover, the mismanagement — of Riverview. It has only 92 beds, half for forensic patients.

For more than two decades, after a suit brought by AMHI patients, the courts have tried to force the state to improve its mental-health care — without, critics would say, much success. Now federal authorities are trying to force the state to clean up its act at Riverview by withholding the $20 million, which Maine taxpayers would have to make up.

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