New wing helps, but doesn't solve all security hospital's problems

Ken Schugel
Ken Schugel looks at the bathrooms during a public tour of the new facilities at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center on Wednesday. The new facility includes longer sight lines that help guards maintain order at the center.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a $56 million expansion to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.

The Department of Human Services says the addition's modern design is much safer for both staff and patients. But hospital workers say a lot of work still remains in terms of improving safety.

The Minnesota Security Hospital treats people civilly-committed by state courts as mentally ill and dangerous. Some recent incidents highlight just how dangerous some of the patients can be.

Last year, one patient slammed security counselor Kaija McMillen's head into a wall several times then kneed her in the back of the head, knocking her unconscious. She still suffers from seizures and PTSD and has not been able to return to work.

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In early 2014, a patient entered the room of 41-year-old Michael Douglas — another patient — and stomped him to death.

Hospital director Carol Olson says the new wing will be much safer. Leading a tour during an open house Wednesday, Olson stepped into a staff office on one of the units and pointed out the sweeping view of the common area and patient rooms.

Carol Olson
Carol Olson, executive director for forensic services at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

That's a big improvement over the current facility, she said, which was built in 1982.

"They are having to monitor patients who are going down steps and around corners, up steps and around corners, around the corner, up steps and around corners, around the corner down steps and around corners. They don't see the whole unit," Olson said. "You can sit in this staff office area and you see the whole unit. That's significant. That makes a big difference in staff and patient safety."

Olson also says the new building has several, small two-bedroom units for the most acute patients.

"So if someone is focused on trying to harm themselves, when you have them on a unit with 15 to 20 other people, it's hard to prevent what their peers are giving to them that they could use to harm themselves. When you're on a unit with just two people you can control that a lot more."

Olson said there are other details aimed at making the building less institutional and more conducive to treatment, including skylights, soft linoleum floors, and units named for trees. Think Willow and Redwood, not 100 and 200.

Even with the new building and its 104 beds, half the hospital remains in the old facility with its blind corners and poor sightlines.

Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper says Gov. Mark Dayton plans to ask lawmakers again to authorize millions of dollars for new construction and to hire more workers.

"Last year he sought over $20 million to increase staff at security hospital and the Legislature didn't fund any of that request," Piper said, "so he will be bringing that additional staffing request back to the Legislature as part of his budget this coming year as well."

Piper says violent incidents and staff injuries at the hospital are down over last year. Last month Minnesota OSHA imposed a $20,000 fine and settlement agreement on DHS for safety violations at the hospital.

Tim Headlee, a security counselor and president of AFSCME local 404, which represents hospital staff, said safety conditions are improving slowly. But Headlee says workers still aren't getting all the training they need, and they're too often subject to mandatory extra shifts.

"We have the data, we have the documentation from other facilities that we're not within the proper patient staff ratios," Headlee said. "Minnesota needs to be brought up to at least be competitive. As this facility, the one and only in the state of Minnesota, we felt we were there at one time, and I hope that in our future to come we can be there again."

Patients are expected to move into the new facility in January.