LePage defends bill to place violent Riverview patients in prison unit

Gov. Paul LePage, R-Maine. BDN file photo by Ashley Conti.

Gov. Paul LePage. BDN file photo by Ashley Conti.

Addressing concerns about his controversial proposal to place violent patients with mental illnesses in a special unit in the Maine State Prison, Gov. Paul LePage told a legislative committee that “if you’re concerned about the fence, put a new door in on the side of the building.”

The Republican governor doesn’t often appear before committees, but he showed up in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, where Democrats and Republicans voted along party lines for different versions of the bill on Friday.

LePage’s would allow the state to move violent patients at Riverview Psychiatric Center to a 32-bed unit at the Warren prison that opened in 2014 to treat those with mental illnesses in the state’s jail and prison systems.

But the bill would open it to forensic patients who aren’t incarcerated — including those deemed not guilty of criminal acts or unfit for trial. LePage wanted this in 2013, but that provision was stripped from the bill by the Legislature. On Friday, Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the bill’s sponsor, said it may affect three patients per year.

His administration is now billing it as a fix to woes at Riverview, the hospital on Augusta’s east side that was decertified by the federal government in 2013 and is struggling with staffing vacancies that a watchdog has called dangerous for staff and patients.

However, advocates have assailed the plan: Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, condemned the plan upon its release, calling it “criminalization of mental illness” and saying a 10- or 12-bed facility overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services would be more appropriate.

But LePage told the committee that he views it as a short-term plan and one aimed at getting Riverview certified. Long term, his administration is eyeing a plan to house forensic patients at the Windham Correctional Center, which has been planning $173 million in renovations.

If violent patients aren’t moved, LePage said may have to be transferred to out-of-state facilities, which he called “cruel and unusual” punishment, saying that “when I’m not in the right state or I’m not feeling good, I like to be close to family and certainly, family would like to be close to them.”

He said he’s heard advocates’ concern about putting patients in a prison unit, but he rejected them on Friday.

“For God sakes, folks: If you’re concerned about the fence, put a new door in on the side of the building. You don’t have to go through the fence,” he said. “I mean, let’s use a little bit of practicality here.”

LePage’s proposal will go to the Legislature after Friday’s votes, but it faces obstacles.

Republicans on the committee backed LePage’s version with a sunset provision, while Democrats backed weaker bill that would establish priority placements for forensic patients that would keep patients in places with hospital-level care.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, a committee co-chair, said neither out-of-state or prison care “ideal,” but he said he “reluctantly” supported the prison unit as “a stopgap measure.” But Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the other co-chair, said his party’s proposal abides by a standard that “people be kept in a place that’s least restrictive.”

Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.