BANGOR, Maine — People suffering from mental illness and substance abuse who serve jail time for criminal activities too often are released into society without the support they need to keep themselves out of trouble, according to Carol Carothers, director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“If they’re standing there on the corner outside the jail with a black trash bag with all their stuff in it, I’m thinking they’re probably coming back [to jail],” Carothers said, speaking to a roomful of Bangor area officials and health care providers on Friday. That failure to support vulnerable individuals as they re-enter society ensures that few ever find the personal or societal stability to live healthy and productive lives in the community, she said.
The group, which gathered at the Penquis community service agency in Bangor, is committed to finding cost-free ways to improve the lives of people who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse and at the same time take pressure off the justice and corrections systems. With a year-long $9,000 grant from the Maine Community Foundation, NAMI-Maine is leading the effort to identify underused programs, dysfunctional systems and barriers to providing housing, case management services, jail diversion programs and other support to qualified individuals in Penobscot County.
Similar efforts have proven effective in Kennebec, Waldo and other Maine counties, Carothers said.
Attending Friday’s daylong session were Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross; Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia; Maine District Court Judge Jessie Gunther; Shawn Yardley, director of Bangor’s Department of Health and Community Services; Patricia Kimball, executive director of the Wellspring residential addiction treatment program; and several others whose work is affected by the revolving doors between mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice.
The group noted that the situation in Bangor likely will worsen because of the impending discontinuation of the Penobscot County Adult Drug Treatment Court, a program aimed at keeping substance abusers out of jail if they agree to a period of intensive treatment and supervision. The possible closure of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, which recently announced i t has stopped accepting new patients, also means more people with behavioral problems related to their mental health will end up at the Penobscot County Jail, the group agreed.
“I’m very concerned,” said Ross, whose jail often houses inmates with mental illness as well as substance abuse disorders. “Without developing community resources [to keep people out of the corrections system] we will see the consequences at the other end.”
Gastia said police routinely are called to intervene when behaviors escalate out of control. In addition, individuals in need of shelter, food, medications and other assistance call the police for help.
“When people need services and can’t get help, they call the police,” he said.
Several at the meeting identified existing services that sometimes are underused, including a youth support program through the Bangor Police Department and crisis intervention services through a local mental health agency. Making better use of these programs could help keep more people out of trouble, they said.
As state and federal funding diminishes for social programs, Yardley said, agencies can find themselves “squabbling over scarce resources.” More productive, he said, are efforts to bring groups together to look for shared solutions using existing services and programs.
Carothers said the group will meet regularly over the coming year to identify gaps in services for people with mental health and substance abuse disorders and devise ways to help keep them out of the criminal justice system.