Mental hospitals eyed to house state inmates

News staff writer

  MONTGOMERY Gov. Bob Riley is considering the idea of closing one or more of the state's mental hospitals and using the facilities to house female convicts, he said Wednesday.

Riley said Kathy Sawyer, state commissioner of mental health and mental retardation, suggested a move to see whether bed spaces in nearly a dozen hospitals around the state can be consolidated so that one or more
of them may be closed.

Riley said the state doesn't have the luxury of keeping open more mental hospitals than necessary.

Riley faces the task of overcoming severe shortfalls in revenues to run state agencies, as well as court orders to relieve crowding and constitutional violations at Tutwiler Prison for Women, which a federal judge has called "a ticking time bomb."

Riley said Sawyer's suggestion for possible consolidation of mental health beds came after he asked his Cabinet to find creative ways to cut expenses.

In a written statement later, Sawyer said she and department officials will present a comprehensive proposal for Riley's review within two weeks.

Riley said closing one or more hospitals could enable the state to improve services at the remaining hospitals if sufficient capacity can be found to handle the needs of present clients.

But the plan is not set in concrete. "We have not started that effort. ... It is in the conceptual stages right now," Riley said.

The governor called Sawyer an "extraordinary individual" who is "passionate about her efforts to change that system and make it more effective."

"Basically, we are evaluating all facilities across the state," Sawyer said. "We are looking at factors such as facility census, financial data, physical plant condition and staffing."

The agency's first priority, she said, will be to meet the needs of clients and their families. Over the past 20 years, the department has moved thousands of clients from state hospitals to community care facilities,
creating the opportunity for possible savings through consolidation, she said.

Alabama's mental hospital system includes 10 mental illness and four mental retardation facilities around the state.

Tuscaloosa is home to Bryce Hospital, the state's oldest and largest psychiatric hospital; Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility, a maximum security facility for patients committed by the criminal courts; and Partlow Developmental Center, a facility for the retarded.

Tuscaloosa also has the Alice Kidd and S.D. Allen nursing homes and the Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Center.

The North Alabama Regional Hospital in Decatur provides short-term acute care. Montgomery has the Greil Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, which provides acute hospital care for adults with serious mental illnesses.

Other mental hospitals are Searcy Hospital in Mount Vernon and Thomasville Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in Thomasville; other facilities for the retarded are the Lurleen B. Wallace Developmental Center in Decatur, the A.P. Brewer-Bayside Development Center in Daphne and the J.S. Tarwater Developmental Center in Wetumpka.

The state's 10 mental illness centers have a bed capacity of 1,235 and a current census of 1,203, agency spokesman John Ziegler said.