WARREN, Maine — Last spring, Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said that during a Cabinet meeting, Gov. Paul LePage leaned over and said to him that more beds for the seriously mentally ill were needed.

And with the state’s psychiatric hospital grappling with handling violent patients, the state came up with a plan.

That led to the opening Saturday of the Intensive Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison. State officials lauded the program and mental health advocates are hopeful that improvements in the care of mentally ill prisoners will result.

A tour of the new mental health unit was held Friday afternoon and attended by state officials including LePage.

The governor acknowledged the state had not done a good enough job.

“We’ve been ignoring the problem for far too long,” LePage said.

The state is facing a loss of $20 million in funding for the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta after the federal government found that there were far too many attacks against staff and other patients by violent patients. The opening of the mental health unit at the state prison will shift some of those patients who are convicted of violent offenses out of Riverview.

The new unit includes 32 beds with a staff of about 16 people. The unit was created from space that had once been part of the special management unit but more recently had been unused. The annual cost of the center is estimated at $3.2 million.

Dr. Dan Bannish, a psychologist at the prison unit, said success will be based on creating a new culture. He said that in the past, the philosophy in prisons was to keep prisoners with mental illness quiet until they completed their sentence.

“This a recovery place. The expectation is you will get better,” Bannish said.

Dr. Robyn Hodges of Correct Care Solutions, the private company that provides health care to the corrections department, said that the new unit also provides more space for programs. There will be recreational therapy, music therapy and art therapy provided to the patients.

State Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, said the unit was fantastic.

“Half the people in the prison would not be here if not for mental health issues,” Evangelos said.

He said that those in the prison with serious mental health problems need to be treated before they are released back into society.

The state representative praised the work of Warden Rodney Bouffard, saying he was doing a fantastic job.

Associate Commissioner Jody Breton said the center will help the county jails immensely. The jails are not equipped to deal with such inmates, who create a disruption for these smaller facilities.

“This will relieve the pressure on the county jails,” Breton said.

She pointed out that the department has been working closely with advocacy groups.

One of those is the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Maine. NAMI Maine Executive Director Jenna Mehnert said the state has been inclusive in considering plans. NAMI Maine also supports the creation of the new mental health unit.

Bannish said the programs will be based on evidence of what works well and has been successful.

Mehnert said a staff member reviewed the programs and questioned whether they are based on scientific evidence of success. She said that the state’s hesitancy may be that implementing scientifically based programs would be more expensive.

NAMI Maine will stay in contact with the department to make sure that the proper programs are used.

Steve Lewicki of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said last week while the new prison administration has been more responsive to concerns and he welcomes the opening of the new mental health unit, he said he is still hearing of too many prisoners not receiving timely mental health services.

Sarni Blouin, a registered nurse for the center, said she had previously worked at the prison and is excited to return. She said the new center will be a great improvement to what had been in place.

“That’s why I came back, I’m looking forward to it,” Blouin said.