MACHIAS, Maine — Members of the Washington County board of visitors were told at their annual meeting Wednesday that jail and prison officials are bracing for a cycle of problems as state funding for services for inmates suffering from mental health problems continues to be cut.
The 10-member board visits and monitors the county jail and makes recommendations to the county sheriff. Chairman Sandra Prescott said the group is taking a close look at the erosion of funding for mental health services this year, and its effect on inmates.
In this state budget year, the Washington County Jail is expected to lose $125,000 in state funding as well as the jail’s only mental health counselor, whose Department of Health and Human Services job is on the chopping block. Officials told the board of visitors that nearly every jail inmate suffers from mental health or substance abuse issues and until those issues are dealt with, the jail will have a revolving door.
“The people we are getting have more severe mental health issues and conditions than in the past,” Lt. Mary Zidalis of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office told the board. “And once they have been arrested and jailed, it is much harder to get people into hospital care.”
The sheriff’s office, which administers the jail, estimates that half of all inmates at the Washington County Jail are on some sort of psychotropic drug for mental problems.
Ann O’Brien, a board member and the only psychiatric nurse practitioner in Washington County, said she attended a meeting of area health care providers Tuesday in Eastport where participants were bemoaning the fact that no facility in the county has an emergency, major mental health crisis bed.
“I told them that we do. It’s the jail,” she said.
Recognizing that many people continue to interact with law enforcement not necessarily because they are bad, but because they are ill, Sheriff Donnie Smith told the board, “You cannot arrest your way out of this problem. Particularly with mental health issues, if we — the jails — don’t provide these services, the whole system implodes.”
Carlotta “Dee” Bassano, district attorney for Washington and Hancock counties, said she has an “endless number of cases” that are rooted in mental health or substance abuse problems, or both. “It is so frustrating.”
Dale McGee of the Bangor Veterans Center said that 93 percent of all state and county inmates eventually will be released and returned to their families and communities.
“But we haven’t made them better,” McGee said. “We may not be able to arrest ourselves out of the problem, but I believe we can treat our way out of it.”
Capt. Robert Gross, Washington County Jail administrator, said that because of cuts in staffing pushed by smaller budgets — not space problems — jails in Cumberland, York and Somerset counties are all refusing to take new prisoners.
“Riverview [Psychiatric Center in Augusta] is full. There is no room,’’ Gross said. “The whole system is bogged down.”
Several board members said the problem in Washington County will only escalate as the local jail, Down East Correctional Facility, and local service providers begin to feel the deep effects of state budget cuts for rehabilitation or treatment programs. They were especially critical of the way methadone clinics are operated and are afraid similar effects will be felt if state mental health services are privatized, as suggested by Gov. Paul LePage.
“The state has done such a poor job [with the methadone clinics],” McGee said. “It is about making money, not treatment. If this was about treatment, clients would have one-on-one counseling, go to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, have group counseling and a plan for the future. This is not happening.”
It is not uncommon, he said, for people to end up in the methadone program for six or seven years. “There is no incentive for them to get out.” Everyone at the meeting favored the state’s proposal to have all methadone recipients out of the program by the end of two years of service.
“The problem with privatization is there is no motivation to discontinue care. There is no payoff to wean a client. This is not treatment,” said Betsy Jaegerman, a probation officer in Washington County for the past 34 years. She said clients often stay on the methadone program because they get a mileage reimbursement for driving to Calais for the medication.
“They are telling me they are paying their court-ordered restitution with those mileage payments.”
“This country needs to have a serious discussion about how we process inmates,” Smith said. “Something is very, very wrong, not just here, but across the country.”
The first thing Smith said he does when he arrives at work each morning is to check the jail list, and he said he is not surprised when he recognizes most of the names on the intake sheet.
“You know, it is not the jail’s job to rehabilitate or punish,” he said. “It is our job to house and keep inmates safe, and serving their mental health needs is part of that duty.”
A previous version of this story misspelled Lt. Mary Zidalis' name.