Baton Rouge to Vote on Mental Health Center

BATON ROUGE, La. — Ever since the Earl K. Long (EKL) Medical Center closed in Baton Rouge in April 2013, a growing portion of inmates with mental illness or substance abuse problems have been taken to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. Overflow at the prison and local emergency rooms, however, has convinced officials to start drafting plans to build a mental health restoration center.

The closing of the medical center meant the closing of its specialized mental health emergency unit, so this new mental health restoration center would serve as a place for law enforcement officers to take people who need mental health or substance abuse treatment instead of taking them to jail. It would function like the EKL mental health unit did before it closed, officials told The Advocate.

When the medical center originally closed, officials looked to telemedicine to provide inmates with necessary health care. The Louisiana Department of Corrections announced plans to increase telemedicine visits by nearly 600 percent in May 2013, putting its telemedicine goal at roughly 20,000 visits annually.

Despite the use of telemedicine, people with mental health disorders are still being sent to jail and the emergency room. Jan Kasofsky, director of the Capital Area Human Services District, which coordinates mental health addictive disorder services in the area, told The Advocate that they knew there would be an increase in the number of those with mental illness going to jail and the emergency room, which is a problem. Adding to the problem, three Parish Prison inmates with mental illness died while incarcerated in the past two years. (Parish medical officials, however, said all three died of natural causes.)

Many local officials, including William Daniel, Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative office, District Attorney Hillar Moore III and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, referenced the recent closures or downsizings of state mental health facilities as a major contributor to the challenges now faced by the local criminal justice and health care systems, The Advocate reported. All three law enforcement leaders expressed the need for a facility where police officers and sheriff’s deputies can take mentally ill people other than jail or an ER.

In addition to accepting drop-offs from local law enforcement, the proposed restoration center would also accept walk-in patients suffering from psychotic breakdowns or issues with depression, people with suicidal thoughts and people who just need a place to sober up. A key component of the facility, which is in the early stages of planning and is tied financially to Holden’s latest public safety tax proposal, would be the outpatient treatment offerings.

The restoration center would be one component of a broader plan to overhaul the way Baton Rouge handles nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, particularly those dealing with mental illness and substance abuse. It is largely based on programs in cities such as Lafayette, La., and San Antonio, according to The Advocate.

Proposed operating and construction costs for the center haven’t been released yet, while potential funding sources are also far from being finalized. The entire plan and other proposed changes depend largely on the passage of Holden’s tax proposal, which would raise an estimated $350 million for public safety construction projects. Metro Council members will vote on the tax plan in January, which will determine whether or not to send the proposal to voters in May 2015.