Spurred by the severe overcrowding at the D.C. jail, District officials are speeding up plans to close the city's only residential alcoholism treatment center so its buildings can be used to house prisoners.
The 100-bed D.C. Rehabilitation Center for Alcoholics at Occoquan, Va., which had been slated to close in October, will instead be emptied starting Aug. 1, according to David Rivers, acting director of the Department of Human Services, which runs the alcoholism facility.
Some staff and patients at the center say the speeded-up move is abrupt and dangerous. Rivers said: "We are concerned with the safety and treatment of our patients. We plan to have no adverse effect on the quality of care."
Alcoholism patients were originally to be transferred in October to a new residential treatment center on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital. That 130-bed facility, called Kerick Hall, is being renovated by DHS at a cost of $875,000.
But because of the jail's needs and because Kerick Hall will not be ready until at least mid-September, the city will transfer the center's patients starting next week to temporary placement at two other city-run alcohol programs, the 48-bed Detoxification Center at D.C. General and the 53-bed Mary Herring halfway house in Northeast Washington.
Rivers said that adequate space will be made available for the transferred patients partly because the city has 40 vacant beds at the two facilities and will be discharging patients from the detoxification facility, Mary Herring and the rehabilitation center itself.
Rivers estimated that half the center's 96 patients will be placed elsewhere and half discharged. "These are people ready for discharge that we plan to move on," Rivers said.
But the plans drew strong criticism this week from some center patients and staff, and from the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, an advocacy group.
"The city has gone off the deep end," said Mary Kidd, the group's executive director. She said the District's recent push of "drug sweeps" is adding to the jail population, without an accompanying effort to rehabilitate prisoners who often have both drug and alcohol addictions. "The city believes knocking heads is the solution, rather than helping people," she said.
Kidd said that many center patients were also drug abusers, and that these patients are being pushed out to make room for a new wave of drug abusers.
A longtime center staff member, who asked not to be named, said many patients were extremely upset when the move was announced this week.
"Fear is a dominant emotion for alcoholics, chronic fear," he said. "When you discharge patients precipitously, without plans for them, the alcoholic hits the street demoralized. They panic, they slip into despair and depression" and often return to drinking, he said.
A rehabilitation center patient, who works for the federal government and asked not to be identified, said: "People are really scared . . . . A lot of us have our lives riding on this. These prisoners, these rapists and killers, are not going to die. But an alcoholic who needs rehabilitation, if he doesn't get it, he could end up dead on the street."
DHS chief Rivers said he understands such fear but stressed that "There will be no disruption of treatment services . . . no adverse effects on patients whatever, except the physical move."
Rivers said he believed the main opposition is from staffers reluctant to commute into the District to the new facilities. He said DHS plans to help organize car pools and possibly arrange for an employe shuttle bus.
The District has an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 alcoholics--nearly one tenth of its 630,000 population, according to DHS, which says Washington's rate of alcoholism is second highest in the nation, behind Nevada.
The rehabilitation center is adjacent to the Lorton Reformatory. It opened in 1967 and was viewed as a national model for facilities developed under the 1967 Hagan Act, which defined alcoholism as a medical rather than criminal problem and established new treatment facilities. At its height in the early 1970s, the center had a capacity of 750 patients, with a staff of more than 200.
It has had its problems in recent years, however, with a 1976 consultant's study labeling it "a dumping ground for undesirables" with an overworked, undertrained staff delivering little effective therapy.
Gradually, the center's one- and two-story brick buildings have been taken over by the nearby prison. James Palmer, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, said his department plans to take over the facility on Aug. 1, but is unsure how long it will take to convert the buildings for prison use.