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Space Shortage Has Violent Mental Patients Mixed With Others

January 9, 1986

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ Dangerous mental patients are being housed in wards with non-violent patients at a state hospital because of crowded conditions at Texas’ only maximum-security unit for the mentally ill, officials say.

As an alternative to Rusk State Hospital, officials at Austin State Hospital have tried various methods to keep violent mental patients quiet. One patient who throws furniture is given Oreo cookies several times a day to keep him calm, the Austin American-Statesman reported today.

Mental health officials see no end to the crowding at Rusk, and have decided to expand the state’s only maximum-security unit for the mentally ill by opening a new building there, the newspaper said.

Officials said the Rusk unit is mostly filled with mentally ill criminals and those judged incompetent to stand trial, not state hospital patients.

″So far, we haven’t had anybody killed or had anybody maimed,″ said Kenny Dudley, superintendent of Austin State Hospital. ″There hasn’t been a tragedy - yet. But we’ve got people who are manifestly dangerous, and they’re not supposed to be here.

″We’re kind of just left in limbo. We can’t get people out of here in a hurry who are acting out and having problems.″

Although Rusk’s maximum security unit has been filled almost every day since June, Austin State Hospital has continued to hold disciplinary hearings to determine if violent patients are ″manifestly dangerous,″ Dudley said.

Such patients routinely had been sent to Rusk, but recently only those violent enough to cause immediate alarm have been accepted for transfer, he said. The remainder have been returned to their wards.

Dudley said the hospital had five patients Wednesday who had been declared dangerous, including two in a 20-patient ward.

Some Austin State Hospital workers say they are afraid to work near the dangerous patients who should have been sent to Rusk.

A mental health worker who cares for the patient who is given cookies said the man ″is always on the verge of exploding. He’s like a gorilla.″

The man was declared dangerous after he ″threw tables across the day room and against the wall,″ said the worker, whom the newspaper did not identify. ″He also threw two heavy wooden chairs. The other patients were dodging furniture. I was sweeping up sawdust afterward.″

Dudley acknowledged use of the cookies, and said, ″At least they’re doing something.″

Dr. John White, superintendent of Rusk, said his 305-bed, maximum security unit had 296 patients Wednesday.

″At least 250 are in the criminal justice system,″ he said. ″They’re picking up people on minor criminal charges and sending them to us. That’s perfectly legal.″

White said Rusk has received mentally ill people judged incompetent to go to trial for such offenses as driving without a license, trespassing and prostitution. Many of the admissions come from large cities, he said.

″We cannot withhold any bed space from the criminal justice system,″ White said.

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