VERNON, Texas - The North Texas State Hospital is located in Vernon, Texas just 6 miles from the Texas-Oklahoma border.
Its Vernon campus houses over 400 of the state’s most violent accused criminals.
“This is not a prison,” hospital CEO James Smith says. “It’s a fully accredited psychiatric hospital.”
Once a geriatric treatment center, the hospital is a facility where patients are treated after they’ve been deemed either incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.
“That does not mean they didn’t commit the act,” Smith explained. “To the contrary. It means that they could not appreciate the wrongfulness of the act.”
Last summer, Joshua Lopez, who shot and killed Elmendorf Police Chief Michael Pimentel nearly four years ago, arrived here after years of legal wrangling and competency hearings.
His stay, almost certainly, will be for a long time.
Smith said, “In many, if not all, the majority of cases, persons found not guilty by reason of insanity actually spend more time in state psychiatric hospitals than they would have spent in prison had they been convicted.”
There are no handcuffs or shackles on the patients, nor are there bars on the doors and windows in the dormitories housing them.
However, the campus is surrounded by a 15-foot-high, unclimbable fence.
The campus is not all free roaming. Actively violent patients - they’re called patients, not inmates – are kept in a more secure area.
“There’s one area of focus that we always work to keep our eye on, and that’s the issue of dangerousness or potential dangerousness,” Smith said.
“We have security observation towers, use electronic monitoring and have cameras in our buildings and in certain areas outside of our buildings,” he said.
Smith is optimistic about the effectiveness of treatment given patients.
“I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we are making a good difference,” he said.
Lopez's lawyer, San Antonio attorney Joel Perez , applauded the decision to send Lopez to the Vernon campus.
“The easiest solution is to put them in jail instead of having a system where you commit them and they get help,” he said. “I personally believe that we need more of these services.”
That would cost money.
“It’s sad that we in the legislature tend to be reactionary that than be proactive,” said State Senator Jose Menendez from San Antonio. “I would like to see, in the next session, an investment.”
Menendez said that he will follow up on seeking that investment in mental health services when the legislature convenes next year.
That could well shrink the hospital’s Vernon campus population.
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