Published 2:50 am Saturday, March 2, 2019

SCAMH director: It’s a secure, safe facility

Many people, including presiding Circuit Judge Lex Short, have raised concerns about South Central Alabama Mental Health plans to locate a forensic mental health facility in Andalusia.

Tommy Wright

On Friday, SCAMH Director Tommy Wright answered questions about who will be housed in the facility.

Q: What would you say to the people who are concerned about this facility?

Wright: The facility will be a secure, locked facility built with the public safety in mind.

We have no intent to release anybody who comes to that facility in to this community. They would come for a very specific treatment reason, part of it educational, and they would go back to their county of origin to stand trial.

Q: Would anybody be in that facility who was not referred by a circuit judge?

Wright: Our referrals come from the Department of Mental Health. Not the Department of Corrections, and not the judge.

Q: Could the local probate judge refer people who need mental health care?

Wright: No. This facility would be for a very specific purpose, for competency restoration.

Q: What about the jobs created by this facility? For instance, the Department of Mental Health says a psychiatrist will be on staff. Are there jobs local people can do?

Wright: The unit requires a psychiatrist. We are in negotiations with a psychiatric group to provide that service. Most of staff could be hired from our area.

We are talking about nurses, and therapists like the ones who work for us every day. Those people would probably be local. Most of the staff could be hired locally.

Obviously, when we start any facility, finding staff is a concern. A psychiatrist is probably the only position that’s not local.

Q: How is this financed? Will you have an allocation from the Department of Mental Health, or will you be billing for reimbursement?

Wright: This is financed primarily by the Department of Mental Health. This is somewhat a complicated issue. Most folks when they’re arrested, if they have benefits – Medicaid or some kind of health insurance – when the insurer finds out they’re in jail, that insurance will probably be discontinued. Funding will be mostly from the Department of Mental Health.

Q: Is this a done deal?

Wright: I guess nothing is totally done. We would hope to be able to operate the facility here in Covington County. We would hope to work with the county and city. As I said earlier, no way would I bring a criminal element into this community and let them run loose into the community. That’s the last thing I would do.

Certainly folks who come to this facility would need recreation areas where they could go out, walk, get some sun, and play basketball or something. We would like to work with the jail to use their area for recreation. There are other things we could possibly both use, like the portal entrance. We’re looking at all of our options at this point.

I would say that certainly, the county commission has some concerns. I believe there are efforts underway to try to have to meetings to reassure people. It’s my understanding the judge (Circuit Judge Lex Short) has been invited to those meetings. Hopefully, us and the Department of Mental Health could reassure any concerns he has. It is not my understanding, or my intent to bring anybody to this facility to just release them to this community. My understanding is the clients will be controlled closely by legal folks – judges, sheriffs, and those people.

There is a process in the law that has to be followed closely. My understanding is, courts would order them treated by the Department of Mental Health. If they met the admission criteria for this facility – which is limited in scope –  we would get folks here, and get them back to be able to stand trial.

Q: What is the mission of the facility?

Wright: The mission is two fold.  Obviously, we have to treat them psychiatrically.

The other is an education component that restores competency. Not all people can be restored. If we can’t restore them, they would go back to jail. My understanding is no matter what we do, they have to go back to county of origin, to stand trial.

Our number one priority is to keep them stable psychiatrically. The other main responsibility is an educational component, developed at Taylor Hardin (Secure Medical Facility for the criminally committed, located in Tuscaloosa). We would be trained to do that educational component, which is to restore competency with an understanding of legal process.

To me, it’s kind of interesting for that perspective. We would be doing what we’re doing every day on the treatment side of things, with a combination of treatment and medication. The psychiatrist would basically do rounds every day – by telemedicine or face to face – to adjust medication, or treatment.

Our staffing, provide any counseling and we would be trained to do this educational component.

If I thought people come here and released, not intent. I can say that for sure. That’s going to be up to the judge to do that, wherever they come from. I think Judge Short alluded to this – there is a bit of a crisis across the state – there was a lawsuit that involved department and forensic services.

Q: Is that the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and ACLU lawsuit, the class action lawsuit that challenged the time individuals with mental illnesses and mental disabilities were forced to wait  for evaluations to determine if they were competent to stand trial?

Wright: Yes.

Most people would not even know we were operating the facility. It has got to be locked, it’s got to be secure. We are dealing not only with psychiatric issues, but also other safety, security issues like a jail. Our intent is to do that with public safety in mind. Hopefully, people will be here short term. We will get patients from local jails, and restore to them to competency so they can go back to court, stand trial for whatever done.

Q: What is the name of the state’s other, similar facility, and where is it located?

Wright: Jefferson Blount St. Clair (Mental Health Authority), is subcontracting that facility to Hillcrest Hospital. Steve McCabe is the director.

Richard Craig who used to be here is the director of the JBS. (JBS Mental Health Authority, serving Jefferson, Blount and St. Clair counties). He and I are in contact with each other about this whole project. As part of the training process, we would probably to Hillcrest in Birmingham. We have also been to Taylor Hardin, and we are all working together.

The funds go to St. Clair, and they have contracted with this organization to provide this particular service.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Wright: It is certainly not our intent, or desire, to bring a criminal element to this facility and let them loose. That is not my intent. I wouldn’t be part of the program if it was.