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Rare open house marks Minnesota Security Hospital’s 150 years in St. Peter

Minnesota Department of Human Services
Minnesota Security Hospital houses rehabilitation and treatment programs for Minnesotans determined by the courts to be mentally ill and dangerous.

As its name suggests, the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter isn’t the kind of place that usually welcomes many visitors. But next Wednesday, Oct. 12, between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., the public is invited to tour the new $56.3 million facilities that have been constructed on the program’s campus. A formal program will begin at 1:30 p.m., with remarks from Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper.

Minnesota Security Hospital, a presence in the St. Peter community for 150 years, houses rehabilitation and treatment programs for Minnesotans determined by the courts to be mentally ill and dangerous. The state’s sex offender program is also located on the campus.  

Carol Olson, executive director of DHS’ Forensic Treatment Services, said the event is intended to be a 150th anniversary celebration for the Security Hospital. 

“We have a long history in the state and especially in the St. Peter community,” Olson said. “It’s an opportunity for the community at large to see how things work here.”

The new facility is still unoccupied, so visitors will be free to tour the entire building before residents move in. “They will be able to see what the program will look like in the future,” she said. “Construction is 90 percent complete.”

When I spoke with Olson earlier this week, she told me that she and her staff were busy with preparations for the anniversary open house, an event that stands out in the program’s long, and sometimes checkered, history. 

“There has not been an open house like this before, not to my knowledge,” Olson told me. She said she and her staff were looking forward to this opportunity to let the public tour their new facility, and to the rare opportunity to boast about the work they do every day to help people recover from mental illness.  

MinnPost: Your open house lasts for nine hours! Why so long?

Carol Olson: The reason why we are open for such a long period is because we have staff that work here 24-7. We want them to be able to bring their family and friends and show them where they work. This is a pretty unique opportunity. If a staff member works an early shift, they can meet their family after they get off work and show them around. If they work a late shift, they can come with their family before their shift starts.

MinnPost: Why would friends and family members want to tour their loved one’s place of employment? That doesn’t seem like such a big deal. 

CO: Well, it’s a secure environment. It’s a campus that doesn’t allow the public in unless they have a business purpose. So we have a lot of staff who have worked here for years but their family has never been able to come see where they go every day. This is a great opportunity for them to see where they spend so much of their time.

MP: Does hosting an open house event like this help to reduce any sense of shame or secrecy about treating mental illness?

CO: That might be the case. Our staff takes pride in their work: They make a difference in the lives of the people we serve, people who are at a really vulnerable time in their lives. A lot of our staffers’ family members may have the same general impression of this place and the people who live here that the public does, especially if they are reading news articles and following other media reports. An event like this opens an opportunity for family and fiends to be able to come to campus and see the real environment we have here. They can learn what this work is really about. It’s also an opportunity for our staff to be able to boast a little bit, to take pride in their work.

MP: Do you think you’ll get many visitors from the general public, not just friends and family members of employees?

CO: Yes. We’ve sent notices to local papers and radio stations. And we’ve also invited families of the people we serve here to come and visit.

MP: That’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought of: Because it is a secure environment, families don’t actually get to see much of the place where their loved ones are living.

CO: When families come to visit the individuals we serve here, they enter the building through one door and go only as far as the visitor room. They don’t have an opportunity to see where their loved one’s unit is, what the environment looks like. This open house is as close as they can get.

MP: Who else do you think will show up?

Carol Olson
Minnesota Department of Human Services
Carol Olson

CO: I think that there will be members of the community of St. Peter that will take advantage of this opportunity to see the new buildings. We’re members of the local Chamber of Commerce, so we’ve invited members to stop by. I think some will come. Some of our local legislators that have supported bonding for this campus will come. And it’s likely we’ll see some media. 

We’re celebrating the opening of these new facilities at this event, but we’re also celebrating the existence of this facility in the city of St. Peter for 150 years. That’s been pretty incredible for this community. This facility has been really well accepted and supported by the people who live here. We have a pretty good relationship, so I think many people from the community will come.

MP: I suppose there are a lot of local folks who have worked at the Security Hospital for years.

CO: Yes, and historically there has been a lot of community engagement. For example when the tornado came through St. Peter in the late 1990s, there was quite a bit of devastation to the city’s main business districts. Many businesses had to relocate to this campus until they were able to re-establish themselves in the community. Some were here for a long time. There have been generations of families that have worked here. 

MP: Could you tell me more about the new buildings?

CO: When the buildings are finished they are going to hold two 24-bed transition-housing units. Currently our transition-housing residents — individuals who have moved outside the secure perimeter and are transitioning back into the community — are housed in what used to be the nursing dormitory. Our new building has two 24-bed facilities all on one single level. They were designed as treatment environments with big day rooms, with lighting and colors that are conducive to recovery.

We are also are building a social center with a new gym, a vocational center, large-group rooms, small-group rooms, small storefronts that will sell grooming supplies to our patients, a dining area, a new pharmacy, a new medical clinic and a new lab. Another part of the new addition will have two two-bed units and two six-bed units where will house people who are really struggling with their mental health and need a quieter environment for their recovery. Building smaller spaces for this purpose has been critical. We also have two 20-bed units that serve patients. All of these units are single floor.

MP: There have been news reports of incidents in which staff and patients at Minnesota Security Hospital have been injured or even killed by other patients. Do changes at the hospital improve security for patients and staff?

CO: One of the things that have been spoken a lot about is security in our current treatment units. They have a lot of blind spots that can’t be monitored well by security cameras. It’s not safe for the people we serve or for staff. The new construction is all single level, and it has really good visibility of all areas on the unit.

MP: Are there other changes that will improve safety for staff and patients?

CO: Research has demonstrated that more natural lighting, more calming colors on the walls and furniture made of the right materials adds a lot to people’s ability to recover from mental illness. We’ve taken that into account in our designs, and have incorporated that perspective into the new buildings.

And then we go back to the issue of providing more secluded spaces. Research has shown that for people in the most acute stage of mental illness, living in a crowded environment with increased noise levels and chaos can escalate behaviors. That kind of environment is just not helpful in helping people to manage their mental illness. In response, the new buildings have some areas where people can go and calm themselves, sensory rooms where someone can listen to music or just rock in a rocking chair. All of these things help create environments that are more conducive to recovery.

MP: How do these new buildings compare to similar facilities in other states?

CO: This facility is state-of-the-art. In preparing for this project, we visited many different facilities. We went to Oregon State Hospital. They have a program that’s similar to ours. They serve individuals who have gone through the court system. They went through a full remodel of their facility, and so we went and visited them after it was complete. We talked about what’s working in their new environment, and what’s not working. We asked, “What would you have changed if you could do it over again?”

The architectural firm we worked with was BWBR. They are based in the Twin Cities. They have worked on other hospitals. They recently remodeled the mental health treatment facility at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. We visited that building. They also designed a mental health facility in Sioux Falls, SD. We went there for a visit.

MP: How many people are being treated at Minnesota Security Hospital? How many people work there?

CO: As of today, the census on all programs on our campus is 357 individuals. We usually remain constant with a number of between 360 and 370 individuals. There are a little over 1,100 employees within forensic services and the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

MP: You will be holding a job fair during your open house. What sort of positions are you hiring for?

CO: It’s a pretty broad spectrum, actually. We are very interested in hiring direct-care workers, like LPNs, RNs, security counselors, human services specialists. These are the individuals who provide 24-7 services to the people we care for. We also have opportunities for recreational therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, psychiatric staff. We have a full-service kitchen so we are also looking for dining-hall staff, food-service workers, general maintenance workers. It’s really just a wide spectrum of staff.

Staff from human resources will be at the job fair to answer questions, to help people submit a résumé online, or applicants can hand over a résumé right there and we’ll scan it. We’ll also have an area set up with our social services department as well as Partners in Care, our advisory council comprised of family members of the individuals we serve here.

MP: Several decades ago, Minnesota began the process of shutting down many of its hospitals that treated and housed people with mental illness. Many of the people who lived in those facilities were transitioned back into the community. Why does Minnesota Security Hospital still exist?

CO: Minnesota Security Hospital serves individuals who are committed through the state court system as mentally ill and dangerous. We are the only facility in the state that serves individuals in that commitment type. The individuals we serve have been involved with the legal system because of behaviors related to their mental illness. Instead of moving forward with jail and prison, it is recognized that these people have a mental illness and they should be treated in our facility. Although they might be presenting with dangerous behaviors, it has been determined by the court that their mental illness is the driver behind those behaviors.

MP: The population of incarcerated people with mental illness has grown to record numbers nationwide. Have the numbers of people served in your facility also grown?

CO: Our population hasn’t grown. We’ve been pretty constant. Our rate of discharges has seen a steady growth lately. And because of that, we may be getting a little bit more numbers within admissions, but we are moving people more quickly through the process of helping them to recovery.

MP: What will you do with the older parts of your facility now that you have these new buildings?

CO: We had hoped that we’d be successful in getting additional money bonded in the last legislative session, but we weren’t. So now we’re focusing on getting additional bonding money in this next session. The second phase of bonding will be dedicated for remodeling. Some units will be demolished and rebuilt, but many others will have a facelift.

MP: What part of this new facility are you proudest of? If you were the person giving tours next week, what would you highlight for visitors?

CO: There’s so much exciting change. It’s hard for me to say what part I most want people to see. Maybe it’s the softness of the environment, the colors and the calmness compared to what we currently have. Compared to that, our older facility feels harsh and cold and unwelcoming. This environment is more welcoming and calm. That feel is constant throughout the whole facility. The hallways are wider. It’s airier and lighter. I really like the new environment that we’ve created.

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