Police search for escapee from St. Louis mental hospital

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by Lauren Trager / News 4 | @LaurenTrager

KMOV.com

Posted on March 12, 2014 at 4:39 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 12 at 10:11 PM

(KMOV.com) — An accused arsonist escapes a mental health facility and after more than 60 hours on the run, he’s still nowhere to be found.   With each passing minute neighbors are getting more on edge.

They’re locking their doors and windows, wondering where this man in and how in the world he could escape.

No one at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center would talk on camera about safety and security at this facility in the heart of the hill neighborhood, even though people here want answers.

“I live right up the street right here and I had no idea a person escaped,” said Melanie White.

On Monday morning, George Fisher, an accused arsonist, disappeared from the facility. Police say he’s not violent, but they are actively working to get him back.

“That definitely is a daunting feeling,” said White.

This 180-bed facility houses people with mental illness, some of whom have been accused of serious crimes. Neighbors notice a lot of movement.

“They walk back and forth a lot, usually supervised,” said Chuck Patterson.

The Department of Mental Health, which runs the center, tells us Fisher’s the only one to walk away in the last two years, but they couldn’t tell us about any cases beyond that. But neighbors have their own stories.

“Many years ago, someone was hiding in our basement,” said Patterson.

Unarmed security guards watch the front gate, but others want far more safety measures.

“A nice brick wall where we can’t even see the top of the building because that would let us know they can’t easily jump out and right into our houses, you know?” White said.

Now, she and others will be keeping a closer watch. This evening the department of mental health did issue a lengthy written statement to News 4, saying they are taking this escape very seriously.

They describe in detail their security measures including the use of guards, security codes, unbreakable glass and cameras.

 

 What general security measures are in place to ensure consumers stay on the premises? – A: We have a secure perimeter in the minimum security portion of our facility (132 out of our 180 beds), which secures all exits and which involves use of proximity cards and staff specific security codes to minimize the potential for patient escape.  All exit doors are metal, and resistant to escape and all window glass in patient bedrooms is secure and unbreakable.  In addition, all patient care areas have digital cameras, and security staff monitor our primary ingress and egress points.  Our 48 campus security beds are explicitly for the purpose of preparing patients who have made substantial progress in treatment and are being prepared for release to independent and semi-independent placement in the community.  We want to see how they will deal with an incremental increase in liberty and privileges before they are released.  Consequently, patients are offered the opportunity to progress through privilege levels which move form needing a staff escort, to unescorted privileges between the residential areas to the main building, to escorted passes into the community, to unescorted passes to  the community (with court approval if the patients are committed as Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Disease or Defect).

Below is a statement issued by Department of Mental Health, describing their security measures at length. 

Are consumers under constant monitoring? – Patients are being prepared for reintegration into the community, and consequently, our treatment program is dependent upon incremental increases in patient freedom and self-supervision in proportion to the patient’s progress through the treatment process, to help demonstrate their readiness for a less restrictive environment.  Initially, patients are supervised at all times both while on the ward and when outside it within the secure perimeter.  As patients improve, they are given escorted privileges outside the ward and within the secure perimeter, and then progress on to unescorted privileges within that same perimeter, with the requirement that they check in every 30 minutes to confirm their whereabouts and their behavioral and mental status.  In addition, digital cameras are present in all patient care areas, with recordings retained for 90 days, with the option to permanently save any recording that has safety or risk management implications.  Each progression in privileges beyond escorted privileges within the perimeter is subject to a risk management review, first by the treatment team and the attending psychiatrist, and then by the Program Director, the Director of Clinical Services and the Chief Operating Officer.  Only when patients have demonstrated that they are able to maintain that level of privileges and have achieved sufficient progress in their treatment, including the development of a relapse prevention plan, can they be considered for movement to campus security.   

What more specific security measures are in place when consumers are moving from building to building? –Patients in campus security are initially supervised by escorting staff at a ratio of 1 staff person to  8 patients.  Once they have demonstrated that they can manage this level of supervision without risk behavior, and make further progress in treatment, they can be granted the privilege for unescorted movement from one building to another.

Are “guards” or employees armed? What kind of force is used to ensure safety? – Our employees are unarmed.  However, they are trained in various aggression management techniques, and can apply escort devices and restraints when this is needed for the safety of the patients, staff or community at large.

Are consumers categorized into priorities in terms of concern to public safety? – Yes, we utilize a risk assessment to determine the level of risk any patient presents both within and outside the secure perimeter, while on privileges, or when being considered for reintegration to the community either on pass or at the point of release.  Patients who are committed to the Department as Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Disease or Defect are also subject to court review, with the prosecuting attorney having the opportunity to object to any unsupervised pass or discharge.  Should such an objection be received, the court holds a hearing and ultimately the judge issues a decision either approving, revising or denying the release.  In the absence of an objection, the court takes up the decision and issues the order on its own.

How often do people abscond? Is it rare? How many people have absconded in the past five years?  A: Escape is a rare event.  In the two years the current COO has been at the hospital, this has been the only such incident.  It will take additional time to review past records

What would the department say to people who are concerned for their safety in this area?  Individuals housed as SLPRC have been determined through risk assessment procedures to be appropriate for a minimum security setting. However, we consider the escape of any patient in our care, whatever the risk level, a serious event, worthy of involvement of law enforcement officers, and a review to ensure that policies and procedures were being followed, and to identify any and all opportunities for improvement.   The Department of Mental Health and law enforcement are working to bring this matter to a safe conclusion as quickly as possible.

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