Oklahoma Forensic

Forensic Center Provides Secure Environment for Civilly Committed

When the doors to the new Oklahoma Department of Mental Health’s Forensic Center in Vinita opened in July 2008, patients and staff were welcomed into a medical facility offering the latest in technology and patient safety.

Four years ago, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health retained PSA-Dewberry, a national architectural firm, to design the new 200-bed forensic center that houses patients deemed incompetent to stand trial and those judged not guilty by reason of insanity.

“The challenge was to create a new state-of-the art facility to replace the state’s 90-year-old forensic mental health facility while also balancing the often conflicting requirements of the therapeutic, security and budget parameters,” says James Matarelli, principal in charge for project architect PSA-Dewberry.

The new $18 million, 100,000-square-foot center took two years to design and another two years to build, but still came in on budget.

A Secure Campus

The previous campus, which opened in 1913, included several buildings that were built over several decades, says Greg Markert, project manager for PSA-Dewberry Inc. in Tulsa, Okla.

“The old buildings were dilapidated and didn’t use space efficiently,” Markert says. “The boilers weren’t working, security wasn’t good and they were falling apart.”

The campus was served by an antiquated high-pressure steam boiler and chiller system that was piped through a 1.5-mile loop, and patient movement between buildings created an unsafe environment.

“In the old facility, heaters and air conditioners were considered luxuries,” says Bill Burkett, executive director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center. “In the new facility, the kitchen staff has air conditioning for the first time.”

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The new facility also offers a downsized, more manageable environment with eight housing units that each accommodate 25 beds. The previous facility housed 2,600 patients, which created security concerns, Burkett says.

All of the double-occupancy rooms are dry, with bathrooms located outside of sleeping areas. One single-occupancy room in each unit features a toilet. A quiet room, used for observation, is located between every two housing units.

A Therapeutic Environment

Natural light was incorporated into interior spaces, and patients are allowed access to the outdoors to provide a more comfortable area that helps mask the secure environment.

“We wanted security without impinging on the therapeutic nature of the environment,” Burkett says.

ODMH officials asked for the therapeutic environment to optimize patients’ abilities to get therapy for their illnesses and become rehabilitated in order to re-enter the judicial system.

Each of the four pods, which have the ability to accommodate 50 beds, houses a day room filled with natural light from several windows. A landscaped courtyard is adjacent to each pod, and skylights provide additional light in the interior spaces.

“The building was designed with warm and inviting colors,” Markert says. “It’s more friendly and welcoming than you would expect.”

Blending Security

The main components of the security system give staff the ability to detect, delay and deter patients from leaving the facility.

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“Security relies on the openness of the facility and the technology inclusive of CCTV to maintain control,” Burkett says. “Duress buttons are located strategically throughout the facility and are monitored from the central control center.”

Key-access doors are monitored and synced with alarms that are activated when the doors are not secure. The card-access system allows staff to track access and alerts them to unauthorized access to identified areas.

A 16-foot fence encloses the secure area. Instead of razor wire, the fence features no-climb mesh.

Flood lights on the exterior of the building and motion-sensing cameras throughout the facility also help track unusual activity.

Budget Challenges

“The budget was by far our biggest challenge,” says Matarelli. “A shift of $1 million was made for security equipment, but the construction budget of $18 million was still met.”
The construction manager did regular estimates and changed the project scope to meet the budget, Matarelli says.

“The square footage was reduced and every time there was a new estimate, we tried to optimize,” he says. “We ended up with a good marriage between reducing costs and keeping the therapeutic environment.”

All the program space is relatively easy to get to now and some services are located within the housing units, Matarelli says.

Several services are shared by two housing units and the rest are located in a treatment mall, which houses core areas for patient services, therapy, competency training, dining, recreation, a fitness center and medical services.

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A dining room, counseling facilities, library, mock courtroom, medical clinic and recreation space are located adjacent to the mall, which serves as a central hub and for access to various therapeutic functions.

“Patients can access these areas without the level of individual escort previously required for patient movement,” Burkett says.

The addition of the 33-foot x 35-foot courtroom was also an essential part of the design. The facility is wired for remote hearings, with areas identified for the bench, defense, prosecution and jury.

As with many parts of the ADA-accessible forensic center, the courtroom area also serves other purposes, such as hosting church services and other large group activities.

All administration functions are housed in the new building.

“It is great to have all our staff and patients under one roof and that makes for vastly improved operating efficiency,” Burkett says. “The open, airy feel of the facility is outstanding and the interior design work has made for an outstanding, attractive facility that is also easy to maintain.”