Locking up the mentally ill

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 3, 2014

The IMHU is, of course, set within a prison. “People who should be in a hospital should be in a hospital,” commented Zach Heiden, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, on prison mental-health care, in an interview last fall. Senator Margaret Craven, the Democrat who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said in a recent email that people with personality disorders should be treated at a psychiatric hospital.

The IMHU is not even technically a hospital. A spokesperson for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — the outfit that defunded Riverview — told me CMS wouldn’t monitor the treatment of patients at the prison unit since “uncertified facilities fall outside the scope of CMS.”


The Labontes imagine the ideal environment for Michael: a guarded working farm. “If you had a chore, he’d do it,” Judy said. He also needs “normal people” around him, she added.

At Michael’s 2001 sentencing, Judy told the judge, “He came home to me and there was just no program available, and that, I think, is the problem.” At that hearing, Michael testified that he wanted to be in a program “where I can actually learn how to be in society.”

Programs? They cost money.

A lot of state money has been spent on prisons, but mostly for buildings and guards, not much on therapeutic, educational, and vocational programs, as high recidivism rates bear witness. And now even prison budgets are being slashed. The Maine State Prison’s budget was cut by $9.6 million from 2009 to 2012. Recently, violence rose at South Portland’s Long Creek Youth Development Center after big budget cuts saw staff numbers reduced.

As for Riverview, in December its patient advocate, Jay Harper, told the Health and Human Services Committee that violent incidents there resulted from not enough staff and under-trained staff. Harper became acting Riverview superintendent in March when Mary Louise McEwen was fired after she wasn’t able to regain the $20 million the feds pulled. (Harper recently told me that the problem of under-trained staff had been solved by the hiring of “acuity specialists.”)


In the 2001 court testimony, statements were made by all sides that prison was a bad choice for Michael. But he was sent there, and it turned out to be a terrible choice. Torture awaited him.

So here’s what could be the biggest absurdity in this story: let’s say Michael goes back to prison and survives his sentence. He then faces two years of probation; if he hasn’t improved a great deal, he’ll quickly violate it and serve two more years in prison. If he survives that, he’ll then be on the street, on his own, completely. If prison turns him into a monster, he’ll have free reign to act like one.

Case in point: at the Supermax, Michael’s cell was across the corridor from that of Michael Woodbury, another mentally ill man who spent a long time in solitary confinement. In 2007, soon after Woodbury’s release from prison, he shot and killed three men in a bungled New Hampshire robbery. Before his release he had given a “manifesto,” as he called it, to a prison mental-health worker, predicting he “was going to crack like this.”

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