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Norristown State Hospital missing deadline under ACLU settlement

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has been squeezed between an ACLU class-action settlement requiring the state to reduce wait times for criminal defendants needing psychiatric treatment at Norristown State Hospital and community desire to commercially develop the 200-plus-acre site. The state has a new Jan. 5 deadline to open 50 forensic beds in Norristown.

Norristown State Hospital will miss a Dec. 15 deadline to add 50 beds for the treatment of mentally ill criminal defendants under a class-action settlement. The new deadline is Jan. 5.
Norristown State Hospital will miss a Dec. 15 deadline to add 50 beds for the treatment of mentally ill criminal defendants under a class-action settlement. The new deadline is Jan. 5.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / File Photograph

Pennsylvania's Dec. 15 deadline under a legal settlement to create 50 new spots for the treatment of mentally ill criminal defendants has been pushed back to Jan. 5. The state halted construction at Norristown State Hospital this fall in response to community uproar over the lack of communication from the state about the plan.

To comply with two ACLU settlements, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services had started converting a building now used for people committed by a court for psychiatric treatment, but not accused of a crime, into one for mentally ill criminal defendants now languishing in county prisons.

"We really did not do a good job communicating what was happening in Norristown to the community," Teresa Miller, acting DHS secretary, said at a community meeting in Norristown on Wednesday evening. "We are also in a bind with the waiting list and the ACLU settlements."

Miller told the gathering at Norristown's borough hall that the state could face millions of dollars in penalties if it does not find a way to reduce the waiting list for forensic beds at Norristown State Hospital. There were 194 people on the list in November, more than the 184 on the list in January 2016, when the state settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that it allowed mentally ill defendants, the majority accused of minor crimes, to sit in jail without treatment, sometimes for more than a year.

Lack of progress led to a second settlement in June. An ACLU official sounded impatient Wednesday.

"In January, it will be two years since the first settlement agreement, and the number of people waiting and wait times for Norristown are now higher. There are more people waiting in jails than they have beds," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Honestly, I don't think DHS is very far from getting slapped with orders that they inject millions of dollars to provide very sick people with constitutionally adequate treatment."

Miller told the Norristown community that continuing with the conversion of what is known as Building 10 was the only short-term option, but that the state would come up with a long-term alternative to end state operations on the portion of the state hospital campus situated in Norristown Borough by 2022.

"We have heard the desire from Norristown's elected officials loud and clear, the interest in redeveloping the portion of the state hospital campus in the municipality," she said.

Norristown Council President Sonya Sanders called the plan "not ideal" for the town, but said she understood the state's predicament. "Council supports the commonwealth's proposal to vacate and convey the property for redevelopment no later than 2022, provided that there is a firm, tangible agreement to do so," she said.

One possibility, Miller said, would be to add beds for criminal defendants near the current Regional Psychiatric Forensic Center, which has 137 beds and is in neighboring West Norriton Township. Officials there did not respond to a request for comment.

During a public-comment period, residents pushed hard for redevelopment and urged the state to stop dumping "lower uses" of property on Norristown.

Others advocated for compassion. Raymond Federici, for example, said he had been a patient in the Norristown forensic unit.

"My experience there was much better than than my experience in the prison system," Federici said, even though he got to feel grass on his feet only once a year, "and it was inside the high fence."