MOUNT VERNON, Ala. (WALA) – A new solution to the revolving door at the jail could be an old one.

Mobile County Health Officer Bert Eichold has been pushing the idea of reopening part of Searcy Hospital, which for decades served as a mental institution. The state closed it in 2012, however, in an attempt to save money during a budget crunch while improving the care through a network of community-based group homes.

Today, the sprawling hospital complex in Mount Vernon is like a ghost town. Giant holes mar the roofs of some buildings, and grass and vines cover others.

But Eichold said part of the campus could be renovated and offer a secure facility for people with mental health problems who cannot make it in group homes and end up cycling back and forth between jail and the streets.

Plus, Eichold added, state prisoners would not be candidates for community-based group homes because they have been sentenced for criminal offenses.

“Many of these people actually have legal violations against them,” he said. “So right now, could we solve – kill two birds with one stone? Bring Searcy back online as a correctional facility focused on mental health?”

Eichold identified three buildings that could be used as a correctional facility for nonviolent inmates with mental health problems.

“The interesting thing is that it used to, Searcy used to have, actually, a medical facility up there,” he told FOX10 News. “They had dental chairs. Everything is still exactly in place.”

Eichold says a model already exists – the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, which is a consortium of 23 different academic institutions. He said a similar arrangement could allow students studying disciplines from psychiatry or social work to get practical experience at Searcy, enabling the facility to be run less expensively by augmenting the full-time staff.

“All the professions have to have this clinical experience, and this would be a wonderful opportunity for them to get the experience working on or helping people under conditions of confinement,” he said.

Eichold has identified three newer buildings dating to the early 1980s. They have room to house a total of about 450 inmates if the state decided to make them part of a prison for inmates with mental health problems.

Searcy Hopsital

Mobile County Health Officer Bert Eichold has proposed turning part of the closed Searcy Hospital complex, shown here from above, as state prison for inmates with mental health problems.

PH&J Architects, a Montgomery firm that designs jails, schools and other public buildings, produced a report estimating it would cost $7 million to $7.5 million to renovate each of the structures. That does not include furnishings, renovation that would be necessary to comply with updated building codes and other expenses.

Hal Gandy, a principal at the firm, also told FOX10 News that the estimate does not include the cost of building perimeter fencing that would be required to ensure inmates do not walk away. But he added that it certainly would be cheaper than building a new facility from scratch.

“Probably a similar building built new today would be in the $20 to $25 million range,” he said.

Eichold’s proposal comes at a time when the state is scrambling to reduce chronic prison overcrowding and stave off federal litigation following a scathing report by the Justice Department in April detailing the condition of the prison system.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in June sought information from developers about constructing three new men’s prisons at an estimated cost of $900 million.

Eichold said his proposal not only could be carried out economically, it would relieve traditional prisons of the responsibility for incarcerating prisoners who need intensive mental health services.

“Corrections would run it. Corrections would maintain security,” he said. “But the students from the various universities, under the supervision of their faculty would help the services, which would benefit the inmates, and benefit the state.”

Moving forward on Searcy has the added advantage of allowing the state to open a new facility faster than building from scratch, Eichold said. And there is plenty of space on the property if the state wanted to expand the program with buildings for probationers and parolees, he said.

Eichold pitched his idea last month to a prison reform task force created by Ivey. He said he has gotten positive feedback from the Department of Mental Health, but other policy-makers have been lukewarm.

A spokeswoman for the governor referred questions to the Department of Corrections. Bob Horton, a spokesman for the agency, issued a terse response to questions from FOX10 News: “At the present time, there are no plans for ADOC to take over a portion of the building for housing and treating inmates who require mental healthcare.”

But the idea has backing in Mount Vernon, where Searcy is located. Mayor Terry Williams said residents of a mental health group home sometimes walk away, cross Alabama 43 and steal things from a nearby store.

The group home operators, Williams said, have told him they cannot stop residents from walking away.

“They need to be in a more structured environment,” he said.

Williams said reopening part of Searcy also would provide an economic boost to a town that was hit hard when the jobs the hospital once provided went away.

“It would be huge to the town,” he said. “The town did take a big economic hit when they closed Searcy. And so that’s – the town has been trying to recover from that.”

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect figure for the number of academic institutions that comprise the consortium that runs the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. 

All content © 2019, WALA; Mobile, AL. (A Meredith Corporation Station). All Rights Reserved.

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