In-depth look at Central State Hospital and how plans to rebuild will help with treatment

Capitol Connection

PETERSBURG, Va. — We’re taking a closer look at the plan to rebuild Central State Hospital in Petersburg and the problems the current facility has. 

The hospital has been open for nearly 150 years. It’s oldest buildings are abandoned, covered in ivy with signs that read “DANGER – KEEP OUT.” But state health leaders say the newer ones, built decades ago, are making it harder to give good treatment to patients.

“Potentially, you have four people with significant psychiatric symptoms living in close proximity to each other,” explained Rebecca Vauter, the director of facilities, in a room with four beds crammed together. “They need to feel safe during their recovery, it’s very difficult for people to feel safe under these circumstances.”

After a law was passed in 2014, state hospitals became required to take in patients dealing with a mental health crisis if a judge gives them a temporary detention order for treatment, so the patient couldn’t be turned away. 

“The vast majority of our patients are actually just like the patients at every other state hospital,” Vauter added.

Central State Hospital also has the only state hospital with a maximum security unit for psychiatric patients. These individuals are considered a high risk of escaping or hurting themselves and others. There are also individuals who’ve received criminal charges being treated at the facility. 

Capitol Bureau Reporter Sara McCloskey had a personal tour of the maximum security unit, where cameras are not allowed. Problems there mirror what’s happening throughout the hospital. 

Vauter has seen these rooms fill up. But it’s not just the sleep quarters. Shared living spaces are tight. So are hallways, with tiles on the ceiling that can easily be ripped out by some patients dealing with a crisis. 

The bathrooms are one of the most difficult places for staffers to work with patients. The line of sight is blinded in some spaces.

“This is an area where staff have to provide intensive supervision in a small space,” she explained, showing a shared bathroom. “It can be extremely challenging for staff for that reason.” 

There’s been a string of issues lately. There’s no central air conditioning in the buildings. A fire in the laundry facility last month cost about $50,000 in clean up bills. A leaky roof in March caused one building to flood, shutting down a wing for two weeks. 

“So individuals were not able to get treatment for a short period of time until that was repaired,” said Commissioner S. Hughes Melton, of the Virginia Dept. of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. “It’s an old facility and that makes it that much more difficult to provide a therapeutic environment and a safe environment for both staff and patients.”

Patients are also driven around the 13-building campus in buses to treatment and activities. 

The governor proposed a budget amendment to rebuild the facility so it’s just one building. It would add about 250 more beds, nearly doubling how many people can be treated there now. State officials hope the facility has private rooms, so each patient can have their own restroom as well. 

The commissioner assures that patients are getting the best possible treatment currently in the facility, but upgrading it will help make a lot of improvements. 

“[We need] to modernize our hospital system, we’ll always know that we need hospital beds for individuals who are seriously mentally ill and not safe,” Melton added.

The proposal costs $315 million and the governor plans to pay for it with bonds. It’ll take 5 years to build. 

When asked why weren’t some of these issues taken care of sooner, the commissioner said it was a major investment that needed to be fleshed out, to find out “what exactly did we really need and then how were we going to fund” it. 

The commissioner says this project fits into a larger plan to increase access to mental health care. The governor still has to give his final approval for this by signing the budget, however.  The deadline to do that is May 3. 

Then, state officials say,  they will be accepting design proposals for the facility throughout the summer.

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