GALEN – In the next few weeks, 54 criminally committed mental-health patients move into a new treatment facility at this remote site in the Deer Lodge-Anaconda Valley – but not without controversy.
“This had no legislative oversight at all,” says Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, who carried several key mental-health bills during the 2015 Legislature. “We’ve obligated the state of Montana to a 20-year lease on a building that no taxpayer, no legislator ever had one voice, one word of `yea’ or `nay’ in that discussion.”
Nonetheless, this unique set of patients is moving in – and state officials say the Galen facility is a badly needed upgrade from an overcrowded unit at the Montana State Hospital in nearby Warm Springs.
“When you crowd people, there is some irritability and some increased acting out,” says Virginia Hill, the state forensic psychiatrist in charge of the program. “I think when people feel safe, they can really benefit more from treatment.”
These patients currently are housed at a Warm Springs unit built for 32 people. As of Friday, it had 60 patients.
The patients include people who’ve committed serious crimes and are mentally ill and people undergoing mental evaluation after being charged with crimes.
Some are serving long sentences. Those under evaluation usually spend two to three months at the facility. All have been sent to the program by court order.
At the newly remodeled facility in Galen, patients will have their own rooms instead of being double-bunked. They’ll also have access to better visiting areas, a gym, basketball court, computer lab and treatment meeting rooms.
The Bullock administration announced the plan last fall, five months after the Legislature left Helena and denied funding for an expanded treatment unit at the Montana State Hospital.
Without legislative approval, the administration signed a 20-year contract to lease the former juvenile-detention center from Community, Counseling and Correctional Services of Butte, starting at $1.16 million a year.
Administration officials say they’re committed to expanding local mental-health services, but had to do something to relieve the overcrowding at Warm Springs and provide good mental-health treatment for these patients.
“The overcrowding puts the safety of both patients and the staff at risk every day,” says Tim Crowe, spokesman for Gov. Steve Bullock. “Galen is a responsible solution to unacceptable conditions that have been ignored by the Legislature for too long.”
The administration says it has authority within a $4 million, two-year mental health budget to make the change.
The 38,700-square-foot brick facility, which has a large, open yard surrounded by a razor-wire-topped fence, will be staffed mostly by state employees. Some 80 people will work there, including 26 who transferred from the State Hospital.
CCCS, the building’s owner, will run kitchen, janitorial and maintenance services.
The facility is five miles north of Warm Springs, surrounded by scattered trees and open fields. A small herd of black angus cattle grazes just outside the yard’s fence.
Ehli says the state does need a better option for treating mentally ill criminals and criminal suspects.
But using Galen is a “Band-aid fix” that comes without any long-term plan for treating Montana’s mentally ill and reducing the number of people who need high-security care, he says.
“Show us the plan about how we’re going to do that, and how, going down the road, you can prevent some of this by moving other people … to the community,” Ehli told MTN News.
The State Hospital currently houses 264 patients, including the forensic patients – almost 50 patients above its licensed capacity of 216 patients.
Beth Brenneman, an attorney for Disability Rights Montana, also says she worries that without a broader plan to expand local mental-health services, both Galen and the State Hospital will keep filling up.
“We’re going to end up reaching capacity in both of these facilities at some point, and maybe relatively quickly,” she says. “It’s not a way to plan a state system for people who really need their health care provided locally like everybody else does.”
Some advocates for the mentally ill, however, say Galen is a badly needed option for mentally ill people in the criminal-justice system.
“The state just flat-out needs more forensic (mental-health) beds in Montana,” says Matt Kuntz of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Montana. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think that Montana will need dramatically less forensic beds in the next 20 years.”
Caitlin Borgmann, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Montana, also says if the opening of Galen can reduce the amount of time criminal suspects wait for a mental-health evaluation, that’s a good thing.
A pending ACLU lawsuit in federal court says mental-health treatment for criminals and criminal suspects in Montana is inadequate. The ACLU hasn’t taken an official position on the opening of the Galen facility.
Hill says the new facility can’t help but improve overall treatment for the people who come there.
“Space issues alone will make a dramatic improvement,” she told MTN News. “Patients need to feel safe in order to receive treatment.”
Reporter: Mike Dennison