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Model for the states? From ‘Iron Bars’ to ‘Village of Healing and Hope’

August 2, 2011

By Val Hymes

Four decades ago across the nation,  states began closing their mental hospitals,  sending patients to community programs and leaving  behind large, tree-shaded campuses with empty brick buildings.

Crownsville State Hospital in Maryland could become a haven of hope for those in need.

Some became college annexes; some became hospital expansions.  But others have stood empty, their roofs caving in, broken windows gaping and historians saddened by the deterioration. That is the situation in Maryland, at the site of the Crownsville State Hospital, originally built for the “Negro Insane” in 1910.   Sitting on 500+ acres are 66 buildings – some of them considered by a local historic trust worth permanent protection.

The state wants a developer to purchase it for real estate tax revenue; the community fears traffic congestion and destruction of the rural landscape.  But a group of nonprofits have a vision for a “Village of Health, Healing and Hope” – a one-stop shopping center for community members, veterans and ex-offenders seeking help,  along with recreation facilities.

They are led by attorney Owen M. Taylor of Annapolis, who dedicates his legal skills to a reentry ministry for ex-offenders and to First Amendment rights for churches and Christian organizations.  Three years ago, he read a newspaper story saying the state wanted to unload the property that had already been turned down by every Maryland state agency. It opened the door to bids from developers and organizations.

When Taylor drove through the property he was struck by a vision of what it could be.  His wife discouraged him, but he forged ahead, gathering nonprofit organizations, social services, and faith-based, community and veterans’ groups to join the board of the newly formed Community Services Center at Crownsville, Inc. (CSCC) He challenged them to join him to persuade the state to turn over the property to them, not a developer.

One of those organizations, the Prison Ministry Task Force of the Diocese of Maryland, is a Jubilee Ministry, advocating for criminal justice reform and reentry programs and sponsoring a camp for children of prisoners, Camp Amazing Grace.

For three years, the group has renewed its request for an agreement with the state to allow it to manage such a “village” and has met monthly to plan community or legislative events and to add supporters.

The hospital grounds already house a countywide Food Bank and three addictions programs:  Second Genesis, Hope House and Chrysalis House.  There are also two alternative schools for children.   Those private and nonprofit programs – and most recently, a veterans center — have been allowed to lease or build space on the property

The nonprofit group foresees adding services like vocational education and GED classes, job training, legal services, a veterans’ home and clinic, and a mental health clinic and family services. It has gained interest from an addictions hospital, a community college,  public defenders and probation officers. It also has hopes for temporary housing for the homeless, a family assistance center, an ex-offender post-release center and a senior services center.

A sports complex, hiking and bike trails, a museum portraying the history of the hospital and its agrarian region are also planned.  Funding will come from private funds, grants and Veteran Administration contributions with users paying for improvements.

“I think the effort to use that campus efficiently for community services makes a lot of sense,” said Frank Sullivan, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency, Inc., which has been seeking space there for two years.

The community associations surrounding the property are adamantly opposed to new housing construction and road congestion and support the CSCC plan. The group feels this effort presents exceptional possibilities for state and local governments to partner with private enterprise, which could be a model for the nation.

“The destiny and future of this precious and honorable property is in our grasp if we work together,” says Taylor, “It can mean the dynamic resurgence of services to the needy and the hurting.”

The state has not responded except to say — seven years after abandoning the stately buildings — that it has not yet made a decision.

Val Hymes is coordinator of the Prison Ministry Task Force, a journalist and editor of PrisMinNet.org.

 

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