Our Viewpoint: State hospital officials must change culture

Editorial from the Salem Statesman Journal, July 21, 2008

We’ve been here before. A forensic patient at Oregon State Hospital escapes. A community outcry ensues. Hospital officials restrict such outings and launch an in-depth security review.

And life goes on. Until the next escape, when the process repeats.

This time, state officials vow, it will be different: The hospital has a new superintendent, a new security chief and a new commitment.

If that doesn’t happen, Salem residents will be unforgiving. They’re fed up with promises.

Two patients took off in the past few days. On July 11, Michael Sands overpowered a staff member and escaped from a locked psychiatric ward. On Wednesday, Mitchell Grigsby ran away during a supervised walk on the hospital grounds.

Hospital Superintendent Roy Orr responded Friday by halting most forensic-patient trips and ordering a top-to-bottom review of security, policies and staffing. Those are important first steps.

The state plans to open a replacement hospital in 2011. Meanwhile, the hospital culture must change. The current institution remains understaffed and the employees overworked. The hospital has high rates of patient-on-patient and patient-on-staff assaults.

Officials cannot take refuge in the fact that escapes are rare and that most escapees are caught quickly. It only takes one time for a tragedy to occur.

Salem Mayor Janet Taylor has called for the state to move its highest-risk forensic patients out of the hospital and into more-secure state prisons. State officials balk at the idea, saying it would represent a fundamental shift in handling of people judged guilty but insane.

The answer then must include these elements:

-Involve community members in the security review and have ongoing security audits to guard against lax enforcement.

-Substantially increase staffing, a process that is under way.

-Improve collaboration with state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the Oregon Department of Corrections.

-Look at whether more patients should be placed in a maximum-security ward.

-Provide state funding for local law enforcement to respond to, investigate and prosecute any escapes.

No more business as usual.