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“Alarming, concerning and appalling:” Taylor Hardin facility staff worried over safety for patients, workers

Eddie Burkhalter

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Workers at the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility said in a 2018 survey that they are overworked in an unsafe environment with inoperable video cameras, contraband, racial and gender discrimination and unreported incidents. 

Those concerns are valid, and there are worries that conditions at the Taylor Hardin facility in Tuscaloosa have continued to deteriorate in recent years, according to a group that advocates for those with mental illnesses and disabilities in Alabama. 

Meanwhile, a civil suit filed in May against the Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) and administrators there by a security officer allege many of the same concerns expressed by the staff. 

Taylor Hardin, the state’s all male secure 140-bed psychiatric facility, houses inmates who are awaiting pre-trial competency evaluations and others with serious mental illnesses. 

Of the 82 employees who completed the 2018 culture of safety survey, 43 percent rated patient safety at the facility as either poor or failing. Just 10 percent rated it as excellent. In 2017 just 21 percent rated patient safety as poor and none as failing. Surveys dating back to 2015 show a steady progression downward in those ratings. 

See the survey here.

Nurses and forensic technicians are regularly asked to work additional eight hour shifts after a full day’s work due to the facility being short-handed, according to several workers’ surveys.

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“We never do things to improve patient safety because we are understaffed,” said one worker. “We are in a dangerous situation now with work getting done.” 

“We are very short staffed, which is not safe for the patients or staff…,” said another. 

Another worker said staff isn’t being properly searched for contraband upon entering the facility, and staff who are caught engaging in improper conduct aren’t fired. 

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One worker described non-working video cameras and several months without phones, a paging system or internet. 

“The safety is alarming, concerning and appalling,” the worker said. 

Workers described incidents are going unreported, and corrective actions aren’t being taken if they are reported. 

“Contraband is permitted in the facility (security does not check for contraband – glancing in bags and a metal detector that does not work are not sufficient and there is insufficient staffing to properly check for these items….staff are permitted to keep working after clear violations: Abuse, even physical abuse.)” according to one employee. 

“Too much is swept under the rug – particularly regarding patient safety,” said another. 

“This place is becoming very dangerous to work at. Seems like no one is trying to manage the issue,” said a separate worker. 

“Secure facility is a loose term here,” said another worker in the survey. “Restrictions on searches, etc. The hiring of young males with criminal records to sit with patients.” 

“Administrators try to cover up incidents and accidents and put on a show for commissioner and/or surveyors.” 

“In my opinion patient safety only becomes a priority when negative attention has been brought to ADMH or THSMF administration,: said one worker, using the initials for the Taylor Hardin facility. 

“Patient care has gotten so bad in this facility I am ashamed to say that I work here.” said another. 

Forensic technicians are sleeping on the job, one worker said, and one technician was chased into the parking lot, arrested “with illegal drugs” and came back to work the next day to take care of patients. 

An arrest report by the University of Alabama Police Department shows that on March 21, 2018, officers arrested 23-year-old Justin Gosa in the parking lot of the Taylor Hardin facility, where Gosa worked at the time. 

The report states that officers smelled marijuana coming from Gosa’s car at a gas station on University Boulevard, attempted to pull him over and followed Gosa to the Taylor Hardin facility. Gosa refused to exit the car, officers said in the report, and had to be forcibly removed. Officers found in his car a bag of marijuana, a scale used to weigh the drugs and a loaded pistol, for which he has a permit, according to the report. Gosa was charged with unlawful possession of marijuana.  

Questions to the Alabama Department of Mental Health’s three attorneys in the civil suit about how long Gosa worked at Taylor Hardin following his arrest, and about other portions of the survey, were unanswered as of Tuesday evening. 

ADMH spokeswoman Malissa Valdes-Hubert wrote to APR in an email Tuesday regarding questions about the lawsuit that the department cannot comment on pending litigation. 

Asked what steps ADMH is taking to address the safety concerns expressed in the survey, Valdes-Hubert responded to APR by email Tuesday afternoon.

“The Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) reviews all input offered from employees, and makes every effort to address concerns. ADMH values the safety of our staff and the individuals we serve, with the highest regard,” the spokeswoman wrote.

“We’ve seen a steady decline in quality of care  and performance at that facility over the past several years,” said James Tucker, director of the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, which advocates for and provides legal services to those with disabilities, speaking to APR on Tuesday.  “There was a time when that facility was a model such facility for the country, and it now falls far short of that model status.” 

Tucker said he finds the statements in the survey to be credible, and that they’ve seen allegations of abuse and neglect among ADAP’s patients at Taylor Hardin. 

“Such an environment then makes it more difficult for staff to deliver competent services as you would expect in a hospital setting. Some of the deterioration that you see there now calls into question whether this facility is truly operating as a psychiatric hospital as intended, or more like a correctional facility,” Tucker said. 

Tucker pointed to the landmark case Wyatt v. Stickney, which in 1972 resulted in minimum constitutional standards of care for mentally ill in state facilities. 

The lawsuit was filed after budget cuts resulted in patients at Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa receiving inadequate care due to reduced staffing. 

 The new lawsuit 

Derrick Williamson Jr., a mental health police lieutenant at Taylor Hardin facility,  filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on May 3, 2019, against the Alabama Department of Mental Health. 

The suit alleges a violation of Williamson’s constitutional and civil rights, discrimination, retaliation, conspiracy, breach of contract and violation of state law. 

Also named as defendants in the suit are ADMH commissioner Lynn Beshear, associate commissioner Zelda Baugher, director of human resources at Taylor Hardin, Lynn Hubbard, Taylor Hardin Facilities director Annie Jackson, personnel manager Joe Long, former Taylor Hardin police chief Robert Anderson Jr. and Joe Rittner, senior special agent with the Bureau of Special Investigations at ADMH. 

Williamson, who still works at the Taylor Hardin facility and is representing himself in the suit, declined to discuss the case when reached by APR on Monday due to the ongoing litigation. 

Williamson, who is black, alleges that he was denied promotions and pay raises because of his race, and that white staff members received preferential treatment from administrators, according to court records. 

Williamson also mentions in his complaint an instance of being shown by the former police chief evidence of “a caucasian staff member physically harassing a patient. 

Anderson consciously and willingly avoided completing an incident report and declined to transmit the matter to appropriate staff,” Williamson states in his complaint. 

The complaint also states that Williamson was reprimanded for discussing with other police officers an instance of an alleged sexual encounter between a female staff member at Taylor Hardin and a patient. 

This fellow co-worker was alleged to have transferred a sexually transmitted disease to a patient/inmate housed within the facility and information regarding these circumstances was circulating among staff as well as patients/inmates. Several patients/inmates had begun to target the alleged staff member, ” Williamson said in court records. 

Williamson said that the facility director, Annie Jackson, conducted an internal investigation into the alleged sexual contact between the staff member and a mental ill patient, rather than turn the matter over for a criminal investigation. 

Williamson also alleges that Jackson didn’t inform the Bureau of Special Investigations at ADMH about the incident, but that special agent Rittner later said that he’d handled the matter. 

In another instance Williamson alleges that he was reprimanded for ordering a canine search of a patient’s room for possible narcotics on April 18, 2018, according to a formal complaint Williamson filed at Taylor Hardin, which was attached as an exhibit in court records. 

“Jackson also expressed concerns by stating “what if you had found something” and expressed her concerns about external media sources and indicated that my duties do not include requesting a canine search within the facility,” Williamson alleges in his formal complaint. 

U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler on Aug. 13 filed a scheduling order that sets this case for trail on Feb. 16, 2021, but the case is still early in the discovery process so that date is likely to change.

 

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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages. 

The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.

Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.

“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”

DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:

  • Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
  • If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply. 
  • Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
  • Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
  • If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.

SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.

Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.

Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.

ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.

There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.

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Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced approval of a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help domestic violence victims access help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence is using the funds to provide direct services and support during COVID-19 for victims of family, domestic and dating violence, Ivey’s office said in a press release.

“The global pandemic has made many aspects of our lives more challenging, including the ability to seek help due to domestic violence,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work of the staff at the coalition who are working every day to help those in need during the additional challenges posed by COVID-19.”

The coalition supports shelters throughout Alabama and operates regional 24-hour crisis telephone lines for victims needing information or seeking to escape violent situations. It also provides training and technical assistance for police and others who encounter domestic violence situations and helps develop public policy to reduce domestic violence and ensure victims receive proper services.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant from funds made available as part of the CARES Act.

“ADECA stands with Gov. Ivey in support of the coalition and other likeminded organizations as they work throughout the state to provide vital help to domestic violence victims,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “The partnership between ADECA and the coalition helps ensure that this level of assistance will continue to be available throughout the state even during a pandemic.”

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Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction

Brandon Moseley

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Twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Mac Girdner

Attorney General Steve Marshall said this week that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction of Deandra Marquis Lee on capital murder during a robbery.

Lee, 24, is from Montgomery and was convicted in Lowndes County Circuit Court in October 2018 for the 2012 murders of 9-year-old twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Girdner.

On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a decision upholding Lee’s conviction.

On June 3, 2012, Terrye Moorer dropped off her twins, Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett, with Girdner, their caregiver who was also Moorer’s friend from church.

That evening, when Moorer drove to Girdner’s residence to pick up her children, no one was home so Moorer filed a police report. On June 5, 2012, the bodies of Girdner and the two children were found on a dirt road off of Alabama Highway 21 in Lowndes County.

The police determined that Lee was a chief suspect based upon reports that he was seen driving Girdner’s white Mercedes on the day of the murders and the last call made to Girdner’s phone was from a number belonging to Lee’s mother.

Lee’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, testified that on June 3, Lee took Hamilton home in a white Mercedes that had a skateboard and a bag in the back.

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Moorer testified that her children had similar items with them when she left them with Girdner. Lee’s fingerprints were also found inside Girdner’s vehicle.

Lee told several people that he murdered Girdner but not the children.

Curtis Robinson, who was incarcerated with Lee in Autauga County, testified that Lee “went there to commit burglary and it turned to something else.”

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Robinson testified that Lee told him he killed Girdner and the two children.

Lowndes County District Attorney Charlotte Tesmer’s office prosecuted this case and obtained a guilty verdict. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Lee subsequently sought to have his conviction reversed on appeal.

The Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division handled the case during the appeals process, arguing for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Lee’s convictions.

Alabama Attorney General Marshall commended Assistant Attorney General John Davis for his successful work on this case and thanked the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney and her staff for their valuable assistance in defending the capital murder conviction.

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