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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.” 

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“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. 

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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