AUGUSTA, Maine — Mental health advocates were joined by Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross in urging lawmakers to require at least one member of the State Corrections Board have expertise in mental health.
“There are few things that would bring me to drive down on such slippery roads,” Ross said. “There needs to be that expertise within the Board of Corrections. I wear two hats, one as a sheriff and one as CEO of one of the largest mental health institutions in the state, the Penobscot County Jail.”
He said the numbers on inmates with mental health problems have increased dramatically during the last five years. During that time, he said, four inmates have committed suicide, and nearly 50 have attempted suicide.
“Sixty percent of my inmates have mental health issues,” he said. “It affects us in our budget, in our medications, in our housing costs.”
Carroll Carrothers, executive director of NAMI-Maine, said that while the original bill called for expansion of the board from nine to 11 members, what is important to her advocacy group is getting expertise in mental health on the board that will be setting policies affecting correctional facilities throughout the state.
“I believe the language needs to make sure we have at least one member with the expertise in mental health,” she said. “It does not mean they have to be an advocate, but they have to have the expertise.”
Carrothers said that, on average, half of all inmates on any day in the state have mental health problems that need treatment at some level. She said every one of the 45,000 admissions to jails and prisons every year in Maine are at risk of a mental illness.
“It is crucial to have those with mental health expertise participating in the board deliberations and decision making,” said Elisha Melnick of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “This bill would ensure that those that understand mental illness and its intersection with the justice system are at the table when important decisions are being made.”
She said court decisions have spelled out the responsibility to care for inmates with mental illness by jails and prisons. She said putting someone on the board with the right expertise would help avoid legal problems in the future. The Corrections Board has broad responsibility for oversight of all correctional facilities in the state.
“Specifically listed as a board duty is the responsibility to adopt treatment standards and policies for inmates,” Melnick said. “There is a need for the right expertise on the board.”
Elaine Ecker, executive director of Consumer Council System of Maine, a group created last year by the Legislature to advocate for mental health services, also endorsed adding mental health representation on the Corrections Board.
“The right people to serve on this board, in our opinion, should be mental health advocates, preferably consumer advocates,” she said.
Committee members asked several questions about the proposal. Several were members of the committee that crafted the Corrections Board legislation last year.
“This was considered last year as one of many ideas as we worked on the makeup of the board,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the committee. He was House co-chairman of the panel last year. He said the current makeup was a compromise worked out after long deliberations.
“I think there is some concern about changing this makeup of the board so soon after it has gotten under way,” said Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham.
The current board law requires a sheriff, a county commissioner, a municipal official, and two state officials and four public members. One of the public slots is vacant.
Several committee members suggested that the vacancy on the board could be used to address the concerns of the advocates saying they could urge Gov. John Baldacci to nominate someone with mental health expertise for the vacancy and that would meet the goal of the legislation.
But, Carrothers said the representation on the board needs to be part of the law.
“I think that it has to be in statute to make sure there is representation in the future,” she said. “We really need to be sure that going forward, as the board makes some very important decisions, that we have someone on the board with expertise.”
The committee will consider the measure in work session later this month.