For the past decade, the public has often heard my voice calling for help as it pertains to the lack of resources for the mentally ill, particularly those incarcerated in the county jail system. This was not a role that I chose but one that came to me out of necessity.

Since 2002, there have been five deaths due to suicide in the Penobscot County Jail and more than 80 averted, serious suicide attempts. These events are not a result of negligence but a product of the issues coming through the doors of our jails.

As mental institutions have downsized, that population has shifted to jails and prisons. Coupled with this crisis was — and continues to be — a lack of resources for the actively suicidal inmate within the current state forensic mental health structure.

Unfortunately, Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor continues to be downsized, and Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta is at capacity with long waiting lists for services. In addition, the hospital setting of Riverview makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept many jail inmates who need their services but also present a significant security risk for a hospital that lacks the security and accessibility of trained security staff.

In 2002, I issued a public “Call for Help” to community leaders for all of us who were experiencing the effects of the system resource shortage. To my surprise, I was joined by a multitude of organizations — from hospitals to mental health and substance abuse organizations, as well as advocacy coalitions, such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. While all the organizations that came to the table then continue to work together today, the limited accessibility to Riverview has remained a significant barrier.

Today, I am uplifted to see the current efforts to bring LD 1515, An Act to Increase the Availability of Mental Health Services, to reality.

The purpose of the bill is to create an intensive mental health unit within Maine’s prison system at Maine State Prison in Warren. The new unit will help stabilize an inmate presenting a mental health diagnosis and who poses a safety risk to the clinical staff at Riverview. This will provide access to 32 mental health beds in a secure perimeter for both the state prison and county jail systems.

Do you remember the 2011 escape from Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center by William Hall, who was accused of murder? Hall was denied access to Riverview Psychiatric Center due to the lack of capacity. Therefore he was sent to Dorothea Dix. Do you recall the tremendous public concern when he escaped?

Today, under LD 1515, that inmate would have been treated in a more secure environment at the Department of Corrections’ intensive mental health unit in Warren. Because of the limited capacity issue, suicidal inmates are being kept in hospital rooms, inappropriately straining those resources.

While this unit within the prison system does not relieve all the stresses on Riverview, it is of extreme value to the jails and prisons across the state. Nearly everyone who comes through our doors will return to society at some point in his or her life, and that will be with or without the benefit of mental health intervention and medication management.

When we ignore the issue, it will only surface elsewhere — in our communities, homes, courts, jails, hospitals, and in the offices of our community service providers.

The mental health unit at the Maine State Prison is only a piece of the comprehensive continuum of care that is needed within our mental health system. Maine needs a comprehensive and intentional mental health system, and the unit at the state prison is simply a component.

We need to stay focused on early identification of mental health issues, community-based intervention, diversion and residential supports for those suffering from mental illness.

I thank the governor, Legislature, the state departments of Health and Human Services and Corrections, and Riverview Psychiatric Center for their lead in passing LD 1515.

I also would like to thank the advocacy coalitions for participating in the passage of this bill, for they had the power to stop it in its tracks. I believe they understand that, while they need to stay involved in the law’s implementation to make certain that their concerns are addressed, to do nothing was not an option.

Glenn Ross is the sheriff of Penobscot County.