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Finding a Home for the Criminally Insane

What should we do with Oregon’s criminally insane?

If someone who was judged criminally insane moved in next door to you how would you react? This is an issue many people across the state — and especially in Salem — are wrestling with today.

The Oregon State Insane Asylum opened there in 1883. The building still stands today — in great disrepair — and is now known as the Oregon State Hospital. It is home to approximately 740 people, all of whom have serious mental illness. Seventy-five percent of the patients have committed crimes and have been judged “guilty except for insanity.” These are people whose criminal histories range from shoplifting to sex offenses and murder.

The U.S. Justice Department recently investigated the hospital and reported that “care and conditions at the Oregon State Hospital threaten mental patients’ safety and their constitutional rights.” The problems include mice in patients’ rooms, scabies outbreaks, and the failure of staff to clean up “messes” in seclusion rooms.

The reported care horrifies many, but the building in which the care takes place can be seen as almost as bad — or worse. It’s so bad, in fact, that state lawmakers decided it was time to build new facilities in two locations: a 620 bed psychiatric hospital on the current hospital campus, and a second 360 bed facility in Junction City.

The State claims they have had many conversations with local stakeholders about their suggested plans. But now the mayor of Salem and other community officials say they don’t want the large psychiatric hospital in their neighborhood. They say it brings crime, social problems, and a bad reputation to their hometowns.

They want smaller facilities scattered around the state to care for these people. But meanwhile in Cornelius, Milwaukie, and Albany community members are fighting the placement of group homes for the criminally insane in their neighborhood.

So in whose backyard should these mentally fragile people be housed? Should one city take all of them? Or does each community hold a certain responsibility to care for these people? Is a large institution the way to care for them? Or are small group homes in community centers a better way to go?

Note: If calling in to a radio show or commenting online isn’t enough, the Department of Human Services is looking for public input on the State Hospital Replacement Project. They’re holding a community forum (pdf) in Salem on Wednesday night from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Salem Conference Center.

Photo credit: Pete Springer/OPB


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