AUGUSTA — A newly created intensive mental health treatment unit at the Maine State Prison does not spell relief for Riverview Psychiatric Center, the state forensic hospital in Augusta.
However, it will provide important services to prisoners who need them and ease some problems at county jails. It will enable the jails to send inmates who suffer from a severe mental illness and who have proved unmanageable at the jail to the new prison unit.
“It’s serving a need,” said Sen. Stanley J. Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Forensic Mental Health Services Oversight Committee. “It’s not serving the whole need.” He said the unit would not affect Riverview’s population.
The committee, which was created last fall to address patient care and safety at Riverview, held a final session Wednesday before making recommendations. The committee was set up after federal officials said they would cut off some funding for Riverview, the state’s only forensic hospital, because of staffing problems, worker safety and patient treatment.
The audit by federal officials followed an attack last March on a mental health worker by Riverview patient Mark P. Murphy. It resulted in corrections officers — initially armed with stun guns — being brought into the hospital to watch individual patients. In late January, a judge convicted Murphy of elevated aggravated assault, concluding after a trial that anger and not psychosis fueled the attack that left the worker beaten and bruised and with the point of a pen embedded in her hand. Murphy is being held at the Maine State Prison.
“Anybody who thinks we are solving the bed availability problem at Riverview is wrong,” said state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who is also on the committee. He said there is a larger problem involving a lack of beds for civil patients at Riverview. He said the new treatment unit at the prison “solves only a very small piece of a pie.”
Riverview, which opened in 2004, has 92 beds with 44 of those reserved for forensic patients. Most recently some forensic patients have occupied beds in the civil units.
Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick, director of behavioral health for the state Department of Corrections, said the prison’s intensive mental health treatment unit opened Saturday with 16 patients, including five transfers from an existing mental health unit and three inmates from county jails. The unit can hold 32 people.
Fitzpatrick said he expected three more people to arrive from the county jails who had already been referred to Riverview.
State Rep. Andrew Gattine, D-Westbrook, committee co-chairman, asked the meaning of “unmanageable at Riverview.”
“It’s usually someone with major mental illness who’s extremely assaultive and willing to hurt people sometimes unpredictably,” Fitzpatrick said. “Those are the individuals they really struggle with.”
Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen told the committee there were concerns not only with security “but also methods that might need to be used. We must be cognizant of the (federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and of what we can and cannot do.”
She said the hospital has not identified any current Riverview patients for placement at the prison unit.
Fitzpatrick said the Department of Health and Human Services will screen those people being referred from county jails to the prison unit.
He also said all the principals agreed that state law prohibits placement at the prison of people found incompetent to stand trial and those judge to be not criminally responsible for offenses.
According to a record of the committee’s previous meetings, the committee members were told that more staff have been hired at Riverview, including five Capitol Police officers and four acuity specialists, “who are to work with nursing staff to maintain a safe and therapeutic environment, prevent escalation of behaviors and prevent possible injuries to patients and staff.”
Committee members on Wednesday said they wanted the intensive mental health treatment unit at the prison to continue beyond June, which is when the funding is scheduled to lapse. Gerzofsky said he expected the Appropriations Committee, which partially funded it, to consider doing that again.