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.
[Read: API staff feel so unsafe, they don’t respond to ‘codes’]
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.
Corrections was in my portfolio for most of twenty years. I did a lot of force cases and most of them were from the infamous “Mike Mod” at Cook Inlet Pre-trial, the predecessor of the Anchorage Jail. Mike Mod was the psychiatric ward of the Department of Corrections. It really did have steel rings in the floor. I lost a couple of dismissal arbitrations over events in Mike Mod simply because my college educated oh-so sophisticated law degreed arbitrators simply couldn’t comprehend life at the Mike Mod level.
Back in the days when people actually worked to pay for their college tuition, I worked in a state mental institution right out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I worked graveyard shift so if it was quiet I could do my homework, and I could be at school in the morning. My qualifications were that I was over 18 and didn’t have a criminal record. I had something close to zero training in dealing with psychotics. I and my fellow “attendants,” the euphemism for guards, had one or two hypodermic syringes with 1200 milligrams of Thorazine in them in our shirt pockets at all times.
1200 mg. of Thorazine will knock you on your butt, unless you’re a psychotic or a junkie in withdrawal. I still carry scars from that job. Correctional Officers have little or no more training in dealing with mental patients than I did fifty years ago. I did some ugly cases. I dealt with Officers that did some very ugly things because they were dealing with very ugly things. I won some, I lost some; I actually lost more than I won because the situations were just so ugly that the arbitrators wouldn’t let us fire the officer over it. I hated losing, but I can’t really quarrel with the arbitrators about most of them. A CO shouldn’t have to deal with psychotics. That said, the Psychiatric Nursing Assistant at API is no more prepared to deal with a psychotic. Dealing with mental illness is a very, very tough thing.
Anyone that has been paying attention should know that this move is one in a long line of miscues, poor management decisions, and inexperienced leadership.
As a clarifying comment to the story above this commissioner has actually had 3 directors, two deputy commissioners and three deputy directors. The first set were dismissed due to moral turpitude issues. The rest taking acting positions so they won’t lose their seniority with the department and can go back to their original positions when this fiasco is over.
Things have been bad since this administration has taken over. There has been an increase in escapes, staff assaults, and inmate assaults. Other issues include: the pre-release unit that had their leadership resign, mandatory overtime- even after closing a facility and keeping the 111 PCN’s, 12 hr day passes without victim notification and forgiveness boxes in the institutions, (inmates can place contraband in them and not be disciplined).
Where is the accountability by this governor? He made promises to ACOA that he couldn’t keep and hired a guy whose first task was to go after them. Now he thinks it’s a good idea to put even more mentally ill into a system that is already the largest provider of mental health services in the state. Criminalization of the mentally ill is wrong and is ill advised. Governor Walker has known about the issues at API for some time but waited until it was a crisis before he acted. This situation will be no different. Though DOC has an outstanding mental health dept, they are already over burdened with heavy caseloads and now Walker and Williams want to add to that? Without specialized staff and inexperienced corrections officers, these mentally ill citizens will be forced to be held in segregation or booking due to lack of treatment space and sufficient resources…What could go wrong?
As far a staffing goes- I would sur like to know what is happening with hiring and why vacant PCNs are not being filled quickly.
It’s time for new competent leadership! Governor Walker does not know what his his doing. Please get out and vote!
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