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New Forensic Unit at Maine State Prison Unveiled
02/14/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The new mental health unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren was unveiled today and inmates will start moving in this weekend. The unit was created to help resolve issues at Riverview Psychiatric Center - the state mental health hospital that is struggling to manage a growing forensic patient population, and has lost nearly half its budget due to compliance issues with the federal government. As Patty Wight reports, prison officials hope the new unit in Warren will become a national model for mental health treatment in the corrections system.

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New Forensic Unit at Maine State Prison Unveiled
Originally Aired: 2/14/2014 5:30 PM
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Once you get through security, several locked doors and long corridors at the Maine State Prison, you come to the new mental health unit. an open area with a few tables, some basic lounge chairs, and a large flat screen TV mounted high on the wall. This open area is surrounded by two floors of patient cells, all visible through balconies with fencing that extends up to the ceiling.

Its feels basic, and institutional. But a pop of color permeates the place - a sort of smurf-colored blue.

"Dynamic blue," says Dr. Dan Bannish, the psychologist for the unit, who is bursting with enthusiasm as he welcomes visitors - from department of corrections officials to Gov. Paul LePage. Bannish says this unit represents a living, breathing change in mental health treatment in prisons.

"There's a tendency, and often a very strong tendency, within correctional systems where the culture is:  We're going to provide some treatment, we're going to provide some help. But ultimately, as long as they're kept quiet and we can get them through to the end of their sentence, we've solved our problem. We've done our job," Bannish says. "The culture on this unit is different."

It's a culture of recovery, where Dr. Bannish says each inmate will receive individualized treatment in a safe environment. More than two dozen employees will staff this 32-bed unit. Many have had other jobs in the prison before, including Mateo Mendoza. He used to do security - now he's also a Care Treatment Worker.

"We want to try to find the root of the problem, help these people and make them productive people in society," Mendoza says. "And I happen to like positive outcomes. I'm very honored to be a prt of this new facility. I think it's a great idea and it's wonderful."

This unit was created in response to the federal government's plan to pull $20 million in funding from Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta for failing to maintain a safe environment. Riverview was cited for using Tasers and handcuffs on its growing forensic patient population - those referred through the criminal justice system.

This unit at the prison will now take patients deemed too violent to stay at Riverview, or those awaiting evaluations to determine if they're competent to stand trial.

"This is very, very important," LePage says. "Now what we've done is we've allowed Riverview to have a civilian population. We're going to take care of those who need help here. That's a lot bigger effort than we've had. You know, once we closed the mental health instutitions years ago, we just walked away."

While the unit may provide a little bit of help for Riverview, many, including Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte says it will probably have more impact on county jails. "They have a major issue on handling this type of inmate. And some help to Riverview, but not as much," Ponte says.

There don't seem to be any specific plans from the state to further address issues at Riverview. Gov. LePage says the hospital has already made the necessary changes to comply with federal standards and that the government's decisiono to pull funding was a political statement.

"I'm a Republican. And I'm the only one in New England," he says. "And DHS has not been favorable to Maine - has not been since the time I've been here."

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew says the state is working on multiple fronts to reinstate federal funding at Riverview. Both she and Gov. LePage say they are committed to improving mental health treatment in Maine, and the new unit at the state prison is an important step.

Photo:  Patty Wight



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