A Broken Place

Article excerpt

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - Metal cans bearing the ashen remains of mental patients fill the shelves of a storehouse that's been dubbed "the room of unknown souls" of those who lived and died at the Oregon State Hospital.

Yellowed newspapers, scattered playing cards, and piles of fallen ceiling plaster litter ghostly corridors abandoned decades ago.

Elsewhere at the 122-year-old institution, patients wear headphones while pacing linoleum-floored wards whose reputations as confining warehouses for the mentally ill are giving way, but slowly.

Staffers show off scars and sprains received while trying to keep the peace on overcrowded wings populated by increasingly violent patients with histories of crime and drug use.

The Oregon State Hospital, a 144-acre collection of dilapidated, painted-brick institutional buildings 1.5 miles east of the State Capitol, has so many problems on so many fronts that a preliminary review of the institution, being released Monday, will recommend that the state simply start over, according to officials who have reviewed advance copies.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Friday that the report makes clear the facility is "unsuitable for use as a mental care facility," and that refurbishing it is cost-prohibitive. "So we're going to be looking at a different structure, and looking at the issue of where it should be," he said.

He said the oldest structure, called the "J Building" because it's shaped like an inversion of the letter, is a more pressing concern, according to the consultants; it was deemed unsafe, partly due to earthquake dangers, prompting the recommendation that the 150 or so patients there should be moved.

Others familiar with the report, by the San Francisco consulting firm KMD Architects, said it also calls for increased staff-to-patient ratios, more space per patient, and more opportunities for patients to be transferred in community-based settings.

The hospital, operated with state taxpayer funds, is Oregon's principal government-run mental institution. The KMD report was commissioned by the Legislature after reports of patient abuse by staff, crowded conditions, and other problems penetrated years of inattention by policy makers and the public.

It won't be until another round of studies are completed that lawmakers and other leaders will tackle the as-yet-unapproached question of whether and how to come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for such an undertaking.

Starting afresh is a popular concept among many of those who have struggled to deliver psychiatric care there, said longtime hospital staffer and current union president Lew Cronenberg, one of more than 200 people interviewed for the preliminary study.

"There's nothing you want to save there," said Cronenberg, a mental health specialist on the hospital's forensic - or criminal - wards for the past decade. "That old building, that's an archaic reminder of our past. When people drive by there, they still think about electroshock therapy, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' that kind of treatment. And we're not about that any more."

Shock treatment, lobotomies, sadistic staffers in the style of Nurse Ratched - elements of the novel and film by that name, both set at Oregon State Hospital in the 1950s - are nowhere to be found these days. But that doesn't mean things are fine at one of the nation's oldest psychiatric hospitals.

The buildings are decrepit. The oldest, the hulking J Building, was built in 1883. The newest structure opened a half-century ago. Age and neglect have rendered unusable about 20 percent of the 1.2 million square feet of building space. Simply razing the facilities is no easy answer, though. Buildings are coated with lead paint and filled with asbestos - both harmful materials that require elaborate and costly precautions before crews could start removing the estimated 52,000 dump trucks worth of debris from a demolished J Building. …