Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

Prison Chief, Bentley Say Mental Health Plan Still in Early Stages

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

Prison Chief, Bentley Say Mental Health Plan Still in Early Stages

Article excerpt

MONTGOMERY | A plan to convert mental health facilities in Tuscaloosa and Decatur into state prisons is in the very earliest stages.

"It's just something we're looking at," Gov. Robert Bentley said Friday.

Mental Health Commissioner Zelia Baugh last week announced that four of the six remaining mental health centers in the state will close, including the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility in Tuscaloosa.

Baugh said community-based mental health services will be expanded to accommodate the shift of patients into community treatment. Only the Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Facility and the replacement for Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa will remain open.

She set a deadline of Sept. 30 to close the centers and move patients, but the governor said the centers won't close until the current patients are moved into the community.

As part of the plan, Baugh said Taylor Hardin and the North Alabama Regional Hospital in Decatur might be turned over to the Department of Corrections for use as prisons.

Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas said any decision to convert a mental health hospital into a prison would depend on several factors, including need and cost.

"It did spark my interest," Thomas said. "I want to see the facilities."

For all practical purposes, the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility serves as a prison for court-committed criminal defendants.

Baugh suggested that Decatur hospital could become a hospital for inmates with major medical problems, which Thomas said is needed.

Thomas said the environments of the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections are different and he isn't sure whether the facilities could be easily transformed to meet system needs.

Thomas said the funding also might be a problem. "It's really difficult not knowing the fate of the 2013 budget," he said. Legislators are debating Bentley's proposed General Fund budget, which contains up to 25 percent cuts for some agencies.

At a budget committee hearing last week, Thomas briefed legislators on his agency's finances, which can't right now can't support adding two new prison facilities. …

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