Officials: New state mental hospital facility combines care, security - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

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Officials: New state mental hospital facility combines care, security

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Posted: Thursday, October 6, 2011 3:45 am

PHOENIX – A facility dedicated Wednesday at the Arizona State Hospital will allow mentally ill patients referred by the criminal court system to receive better care in a safer and more secure setting, officials said.

The $32.2 million forensic hospital will be home to 120 patients who fall into one of two categories: those courts wish to have restored to competency for trial and those found guilty of crimes but declared insane. Opening to patients early next month, it replaces facility that was built shortly after World War II.

“Most of the units are dark and dreary, but now we finally have a facility for our patients where they can literally look into the sky and start thinking about their transition back to the community,” said Sonya Serda, the hospital’s patient rights ombudsman.

The 104,000-square-foot facility features patient rooms with one or two beds and private bathrooms. The current facility offers a dormitory setting with a dozen beds in each patient section.

Patients will receive therapeutic care ranging from tending to a community garden to creating craft projects to playing basketball. Depending on their sentences, patients may stay in the facility anywhere from a few months to the rest of their lives.

The Arizona Department of Health Services’ dedication ceremony capped a 12-year effort to rebuild the hospital based on a recommendation from the Arizona Office of the Auditor General. A facility housing those committed by civil courts has already been rebuilt.

Money for the project was budgeted before the economic downturn.

“I don’t know if we had a guardian angel or they just missed it, but we lucked out,” said Susan Gerard, who as the agency’s former director worked to obtain and protect state funding for the project.

Cory Nelson, CEO of the Arizona State Hospital, said the current forensic facility is falling apart, with crumbling walls, pipes that are prone to breaking and an outdated system of security cameras.

“Safety is increasing because it was built with the population we are going to serve in mind,” Nelson said.

The facility has state-of-the-art video cameras in every hallway. It consists of six community units, each with a nurses’ office where staff members monitor cameras while others engage with patients.

“We are not here to just watch individuals; we are here to treat individuals,” Nelson said.

Rachel Jimenez is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.

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