Aaron Wagner in better times (left), and after his arrest Oct. 25 WAGNER FAMILY, HANCOCK COUNTY JAIL PHOTO

Mentally ill languish in jail

ELLSWORTH — Aaron Wagner is a vegan who likes to walk and listen to rock ‘n’ roll.

Wagner also has schizophrenia. While off his medication, he allegedly shot out a car window outside the Deane Street apartments. He was arrested Oct. 25.

Today, Wagner is incarcerated at the Hancock County Jail until a bed opens up at Riverview Psychiatric Center. That may take months, according to his defense attorney, Jeffrey Toothaker.

Sheriff Scott Kane said, “The jail, unfortunately, is becoming a respite for people with mental health issues and people with addiction. They don’t belong there.”

Wagner’s father, Frank Donnelly, said police in May took his son to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital because he had been doing “delusional stuff.”

Aaron Wagner after his arrest Oct. 25. HANCOCK COUNTY JAIL PHOTO

A crisis worker spent time with Wagner for a couple of days but, as long as mentally ill Maine residents aren’t a danger to themselves or others, they are let go, Donnelly said.

“Aaron needs a little bit of supervision,” said Donnelly. “He doesn’t need a lot, but he needs a little and he needs it for life.”

Former Hancock County Sheriff Bill Clark knows Wagner.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the one we predicted,” Clark said. “This should not be a surprise to anyone.”

When Bangor Mental Health Institute closed, the county jails became warehouses for the mentally ill, Clark said.

“It’s that compromise they made when they started mainstreaming mental health patients and this is a byproduct of that,” Clark said. “They should have risen the bar on who can get released” from mental hospitals.

During Clark’s tenure, he had an inmate with severe mental illness waiting for a bed at Riverview. The inmate broke a light bulb into pieces and ate it.

“The ones who were clearly suicidal, we couldn’t get them into a facility,” Clark said. “They end up doing something far more serious and suddenly there’s a bed available for them because they’ve risen to the top.”

“What we found in drug court was that a lot of drug problems were precipitated by mental health issues or a co-occurring problem,” Clark said.

Also, once a person is incarcerated at the jail, the inmate loses any Mainecare benefits he or she may have had. Any treatment is funded by local taxpayers.

Kane said mentally ill inmates are a tremendous challenge for the jail.

“There may be somebody that needs to be watched constantly,” Kane said. “It might be an inmate who needs to be protected from other inmates.”

People who know Wagner describe him as a gentle man.

Donnelly worries for his son’s safety, not so much in Hancock County, but when Wagner leaves the area.

Donnelly said his son broke into a dentist’s office once in New Bedford, Mass., and landed in the county jail.

“I’m sure he got harassed,” Donnelly said.

A psychologist was scheduled to visit Wagner in jail on Nov. 2. However, months will pass before a bed opens up at Riverview Psychiatric Center, Toothaker said.

Toothaker has been through this process before, with Wagner as well as other clients who know not what they do when suffering from schizophrenic delusions while off their medications.

Toothaker forecasts that once at Riverview, Wagner will decline his medication. A year will pass and Wagner will be deemed incompetent to stand trial and charges will be dismissed, he said.

“Then the real problem begins because what do we do with him and where do we house him?” Toothaker asked. “My guess is he will simply be released to the public and given SSI to pay his rent. But he will still be unmedicated and won’t have anyone handling his life.”

These issues surrounding care for the severely mentally ill frustrate at least one local legislator.

State Rep. Rich Malaby (R-Hancock) said a little over 4 percent of the population has severe mental illness.

“About a third of them have never been treated,” Malaby said. “They can’t hold down a job. They’ve been shunned by their families. They are in our jails, in our prison cells, under our overpasses.”

The state needs a facility for people like Wagner to go after they have been treated at Riverview.

The psychiatric center currently has 14 forensic patients who have been “cured,” Malaby said. They’ve been deemed not criminally responsible for their actions because of their mental illness. They can’t be on their own, but there’s no place for them to go.

“The Governor has tried for six years to get a forensic step-down facility,” but has been stymied because of politics, Malaby said. “He’s right on this issue. The fact of the matter is we need more capacity.”

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said the wait times for a psychiatric bed vary.

“This is why the department has proposed a secure forensic rehabilitation facility on the Riverview campus to house forensic patients,” Edwards said.

“Moving forensic patients who no longer need a hospital level of care to a secure forensic facility will significantly improve RPC’s ability to meet the statewide demand for inpatient psychiatric capacity for civil patients, many of whom get stuck in local emergency rooms waiting for a bed at Riverview,” Edwards said. “This is a much larger issue and one the department has been openly discussing for some time.”

“The patients who would be placed in the new facility have been at Riverview for a year, 10 years and some up to 30 years. As a result, those psychiatric beds are occupied for a long time, impacting access to psychiatric beds for those in need,” Edwards said.

Psychiatric beds are just one facet of the many mental health care needs in Maine.

Laws need to be addressed, Malaby said.

In Maine, anyone has the right to refuse treatment, even those who are severely mentally ill.

“We’ve been hampered by our laws in Maine, which gives anyone the right to refuse treatment,” said Malaby. “When you’re dealing with these people who are seriously mentally ill, I get that, but at what point does public safety override individual civil rights?”

Medical reimbursement is another issue.

Malaby, who is a former board chairman for Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, said when hospitals care for mentally ill patients, they are doing it for free.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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