States in Crisis:
The Grassroots Response
Reform in Maine's Criminal Justice Systems
In 2000, following the high profile suicide of a young mentally ill man at the Maine State Prison and press coverage describing inhumane conditions for inmates with mental illness, NAMI Maine began what would eventually be a two year process to reform Maine's criminal justice system.
In 1992, Maine spent millions of dollars to build what was then a state of the art correctional facility - a supermax prison where 23 hour a day lock down is the rule, you never leave the cell unless in four point shackles, and food is served through a slot in the cell door. The state's plan was to use this facility to house difficult and dangerous inmates who posed a risk to other inmates or to correctional officers.
Just one year later a former warden was already accusing the Department of Corrections of using that facility to house inmates with mental illness, claiming that they were subjected to the extra discipline and deprivation designed to punish violent inmates. Over the next 8 years, the supermax became a common placement for any inmate who became psychotic, suicidal, or a danger to self or others due to mental illness. In fact, the 18 year old who killed himself in 2000 had been transferred from the county jail to the supermax because of suicidality. Why was he in jail? He had stolen a bottle of brandy from the liquor store. He had not yet been sentenced for that crime when he died inside of the supermax.
NAMI Maine knew we had to take a position and change this system. We began by forming a coalition of families, mental health and substance abuse providers, law enforcement staff, advocates, and government officials. With a group of 60 people behind us, we drafted legislation and met with the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Corrections to outline our legislation and see if they could agree with any of it. Shortly before the legislation was introduced, NAMI Maine issued a white paper called "A report on the current status of services for persons with mental illness in Maine's jails and prisons." That report received statewide press coverage and set the stage for our call for reform.
We asked the House Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice to sponsor the legislation and he agreed, noting however, that he couldn't agree with the bill, but would open the issue for debate. The Senate Chair signed on too as did the Speaker of the House. During that year, NAMI Maine brought a great deal of public scrutiny to the plight of people with mental illness in our jails and prisons. Media coverage, legislative activity, op ed articles, and letters and calls to legislators. The Department of Corrections worked closely with NAMI to fashion final legislation that was acceptable to all stakeholders. And, the Committee on Criminal Justice found the testimony of family members so compelling they decided to carry the bill over and study it through the summer.
They hired an expert on mental health and criminal justice to help them understand successful ways to address the problem. They invited stakeholders from across the state to participate in the formation of their report and to recommend reform. In December of 2001, they issued their final report calling for substantial reform and five pieces of legislation. After public hearings, those five bills were consolidated into a single piece of legislation with an appropriation of $9.6 million dollars. Not content to put a band aid on the problem (even though Maine faces a budget deficit of $100 million), they are calling for additional mental health staff within the prison, pilot projects to be implemented in local jails, evaluated, and replicated based on outcomes, additional funding for diversion costs - i.e., treatment and housing, diversion staff in each of Maine's courts, an inmate mental health ombudsman, and reform of the inmate grievance process. And, they made a commitment to keep this report on the front burner. If it's not fully funded this year, they feel they have created a blueprint for funding for the next five years.
Notable too, was the Committee's understanding of the issue. Now, instead of feeling their primary responsibility is to be tough on crime, they also say - what condition do you want the inmates to be in when they get out and come back to your community? We think this is a great success! We also know that the success comes from the statewide collaboration of all stakeholders.
For information concerning NAMI Maine's advocacy project in the criminal justice arena, please contact Carol Carothers at (207) 622-5767 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.