Locking up the mentally ill

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 3, 2014

The Maine State Prison is dangerous. Two inmates have been killed in the last year. One murder was of a man in the Mental Health Unit by another inmate-patient. He allegedly had assaulted another patient in the unit a few months before.

Here’s more game-playing: last year Corrections covered up the fact that that murder had taken place in the Mental Health Unit, even keeping it from Criminal Justice Committee members weighing the bill that the Legislature overwhelmingly approved to expand the unit. (See “Legislators kept in dark about Mental Health Unit murder,” by Lance Tapley, November 14, 2013.)

In the most recent prison homicide, in February, a mentally ill inmate in a regular cellblock was accused of beating and repeatedly stabbing another inmate, and he was able to take his time doing so. The typical prison supervision ratio is one correctional officer to 80 prisoners.

To put it mildly, Michael’s inability to control himself — occasional violent outbursts, many threats of violence, bullying — would not go over well with prisoners or guards. After his return to Riverview from a period in the prison, a psychiatric assessment notes: “His stay there was tumultuous and included episodes of self-injurious behavior, suicidality, and periods of time on both the Mental Health Unit and in administrative segregation.”

Larry Labonte warned, “If he has to go back to prison he will die there.” He believed Michael will either kill himself or his outbursts will get him killed — or he’ll kill somebody, Judy feared.

Despite the new Mental Health Unit’s reluctance to deal with personality disorders, Michael could be put into it. Now called the Intensive Mental Health Unit or IMHU, it’s a big step up from the old unit, corrections officials say.

Fitzpatrick wowed a congratulatory legislative Forensic Mental Health Services Oversight Committee in February when he described its “therapeutic” atmosphere, with a staff of 16, including five mental-health technicians, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and three social workers. “The people who struggle with mental illness are excited about it,” he told legislators.

But Charlie Miles, a Riverview patient who recently spent a couple of weeks at the new unit, is not excited about its ability to provide actual treatment. According to Miles, the mental-health technicians are not qualified mental-health workers, so “they can’t give you advice.” There’s not much group therapy — just card games, movies, and the like. No trips outside for shopping, ball games, and museums, as provided at Riverview. It’s much more restrictive than Riverview, he said in a telephone interview.

A big problem, he said, is that if there’s trouble in the adjacent administrative-segregation section — solitary confinement — IMHU inmates are locked into their cells. Their staff has to be sent next door to tackle the trouble. And when medications are passed out three times a day, he said, lock-downs also occur.

“My only way to deal with stress is to hurt myself,” he said. But when he stabbed himself 60 times with a pen that he got from a guard, his destination was solitary confinement, “which makes things worse.” (The Corrections Department didn’t reply by deadline to a request for comments on Miles’s criticisms.)

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