One way to quickly make Alaska Psychiatric Institute safer for both staff and patients?
Shut down dozens of beds in the hospital, drop patient capacity to half, and send violent mentally ill people to jail.
That’s what happened in the past few weeks, and the Alaska Correctional Officers Association is concerned.
According to the union, the Department of Corrections announced it would begin incarcerating the mental health patients who are referred to and who currently reside at API. The announcement wasn’t made to corrections officers, however.
“Alaskans who believed their loved ones were getting the care they needed are now being treated as criminals by Governor Walker and Commissioner Dean Williams,” the group’s press release says, taking a direct shot at the governor and the Corrections commissioner.
ACOA says against the wishes and safety concerns of corrections officers, the state has relabeled mentally ill patients as “Title 47 mental health “holds.” That allows the state to send these mentally ill people to prison indefinitely.
Correctional officers say they are not trained to deal with violent mentally ill people, and because they are not criminals, these inmates cannot be kept with other inmates. They must be placed in segregation cells, full mental health units, or just left in booking areas.
“How is DOC going to keep these vulnerable mental health patients safe in this environment?” ACOA asks.
But for API, the situation has become even more dire than when a scathing report came out several weeks ago that said the facility was unsafe.
When there’s no bed available at API, patients are often left in emergency rooms, but local Anchorage hospitals are drowning in psychiatric patients they are holding because there’s nowhere for them to go.
What concerns corrections officers the most is that they were not told that psychiatric patients were heading to their facilities. Two are at the Anchorage jail, and one is at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.
A memo from the DOC Health and Rehabilitation Services Director Laura Brooks outlined how the Title 47 would work.
“Due to staffing and safety concerns, API is shutting down units in the hospital which will drop their bed capacity to approximately 36 (from their usual 78). These units will remain closed until they can bring their staffing up to a safe level; there is no reopen date at this time. Per statute, when someone is waiting on commitment to API but there are no open beds, the individual may be held at a local hospital or correctional facility —this is very similar to the Title 47 alcohol holds we are all familiar with. The primary difference is that the T47 alcohol holds expire after 12 hours but there is no time limit for a T47 MH [Mental Health] hold. With bed space at API extremely limited, and local hospitals resistant to taking T47 holds, we can expect many of these individuals who are awaiting API commitment to end up in our facilities. I do not know how many T47 MH detainees we will see or how long they may remain with us.”
Brooks also gave staff detailed instructions on how T47 patients were to be evaluated and treated, which included outlining their right to access to mental health services and medications.
“This is new to all of us so please be patient as we work through a new process,” Brooks wrote.
CORRECTIONS DEPARTMENT TURMOIL AT THE TOP
The Department of Corrections is experiencing management turnover. While Williams is commissioner, he has an acting Director of Institutions, an Acting Deputy Director, and an Acting Chief of Time Accounting Officer, all key roles.
The appointment of Dean Williams as Commissioner of the Department of Corrections in 2016 was fraught from the beginning. The ACOA union was upset that Williams had written a report critical of officers filled with what they said were false narratives. They issued a press release in 2016 saying that Williams was putting the entire inmate population at risk, and that he had created an opening for himself to become commissioner.