Legislators approve $315 million for construction of new Central State Hospital

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: April 10, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.

Dinwiddie leaders up to Washington reps pleased to see needed improvements coming to Central State

DINWIDDIE – Just over a week after announcing his proposal that would see the aging Central State Hospital replaced with a state-of-the-art facility as part of a shorter timetable with a reduced price tag, lawmakers in Richmond formally approved Governor Ralph Northam’s proposal, much to the support of local and state representatives and mental health advocates. 

During their reconvened session last week, both the House of Delegates and State Senate approved Northam’s budget amendment that seeks to replace the facility on the 600-plus acre campus along the Petersburg-Dinwiddie border with a new 300-bed center that would be ready for occupancy in five years, as opposed to his initial proposal of seven years.

In addition, as part of his now-adopted amendment, the facility’s price tag drops from the original $385.1 million to $315 million, which would be funded through borrowing, using the Commonwealth’s strong credit rating. Following the end of the General Assembly’s session for the year, Governor Northam said the actions of lawmakers helped finally bring a solution to something that has been an issue that has needed to be addressed for some time.

“We have acknowledged for years that Central State Hospital should be replaced with the kind of modern facility we want to have in the Commonwealth—I am pleased that this year, we decided to find the solution,” he remarked. 

Aerial image of Central State Hospital complex

Northam toured Central State Hospital in late March with a number of members of his administration to get a first-hand look at what the facility looks and the concerns that have been raised over the years by those working there and the lawmakers who represent the region in Richmond, Del. Lashrecse Aird and State Senator Rosalyn Dance. After his tour, he told assembled media that it was time for improvements to be made.

“This is no longer the kind of hospital we want to have, nor one where we want to treat the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “As state leaders, our duty is to protect our most vulnerable citizens, that includes Virginians with mental illnesses.”

Last week’s approval was welcome news to Aird, who, along with Dance, has been active in trying to have the issue of declining facility quality at Central State Hospital brought to the foreground since her election to Virginia’s 63rd House District. 

“I am proud to see through this legislative commitment made early in my tenure to elected office, after years in the making,” Aird said following last week’s votes. “For too long, as the only maximum security forensic unit in the state, Central State Hospital went ignored. After years of legislative advocacy, town halls to hear from the teams on the ground and numerous visits from state leaders; employee safety and patient quality of care are finally being put first.”

She continued, “While Virginia has increased its focus on our mental health system and has made gains in increasing the services provided in the community; today’s approval of the replacement of Central Statement Hospital will soon be the end of an era. The end of a period where staff, patients and the community are constantly reminded of the hazardous conditions of the facility, its state of disrepair and the remnants of its racists past as a mental health hospital for African-Americans.”

Del. Lashrecse Aird (D – 63rd District) spends time with Central State Hospital employees during her visit to the facility earlier this month. (Aird via Twitter)

According to the hospital’s website, the origins of Central State Hospital goes back to the close of the Civil War when in the spring of 1865, “Congress created the Freedman’s Bureau to establish hospitals, schools and other facilities for the African-American population.”

“In December 1869, a former Confederate Facility, known as Howard’s Grove Hospital, was designated as a mental health hospital for African-Americans,” the hospital’s historical page explained. “The name was later changed to Central Lunatic Asylum. In June 1870, the General Assembly passed an act incorporating the Central Lunatic Asylum as an organized state institution. When the Commonwealth of Virginia assumed ownership, there were ‘123 insane persons and 100 paupers, not insane’ housed at the asylum.”

Later in 1882, the Mayfield Farm in Dinwiddie was bought by neighboring Petersburg and presented to the state for the development of a new mental hospital, with the first patients, nearly 400 in all, being transferred to the hospital’s current site in March of 1885. Within ten years, that population doubled and by the end of 1950, “4,043 inpatients with 691 on parole or escape status.”

During the 1950’s the Maximum Security Forensic Unit was built for the evaluation and treatment of patients referred by the courts, which remains in use today, along with a number of other facilities, some of which have closed over time.

“From its founding until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Central State Hospital served and treated only African-American Mentally Ill, Mentally Retarded, Geriatric, and Criminally Insane from the entire state of Virginia,” their historic web page detailed. In 1967, the hospital opened its doors to any patients, regardless of race or national origin. 

Fast forward to 2019, leaders locally and in Washington are gratified with the news that the facility will be getting the attention it desperately needs. 

“I am pleased to see the funding for Central State Hospital,” Congressman Donald McEachin (D, VA-04) said last week. “For too long, this facility has been overburdened, outdated and in deteriorated condition. We need to invest in mental health care and ensure that all aspects of that care, including facilities such as Central State, meet 21st century top-notch standards.”

Those sentiments were echoed locally by Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors Chairman William Chavis, who said he was moved by the conditions of the facility when he took a tour recently.

“I think we needed this for a long time,” Chavis remarked. “How can you expect people to improve when the facility is in that condition?”

While many both locally and across the state continue to herald the news of the prospect of a new facility coming to replace the aging Central State Hospital, one thing that remains to be seen is how security will be addressed at the complex. Over the last several years, policing and security operations have been significantly scaled back at the facility, resulting in the Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Office shouldering that burden, leading to questions about how security will be handled as part of this new facility, a question brought up by Dinwiddie County Administrator Kevin Massengill following the governor’s March visit to the hospital.

“It will be interesting to see, as we start to see this new construction take place, how physical security will be looked at as well as operationally,” Massengill said. “The governor said as we design and build it, we will be continuing to have those conversations, noting some operational things were already in place there.”

The county administrator added, “Sheriff [D.T.] Adams has been vocal and said he will be going [to Central State Hospital] and feels it is the duty of he and his deputies to respond to incidents there, but again, he wants a seat at the table just like the county does as we don’t know a lot of the details coming from the ten-minute press conference.”

Chairman Chavis said he, too, wants to see more information about how security will be handled at the new hospital and will be done in such a way that it reduces the load on local law enforcement.

“The only thing I hope they do is put a police department there so we can so all the responsibility isn’t on our sheriff’s department to take care of,” he remarked, adding, “Other than that, I am for this project 100 percent and I am so glad they did it.”

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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