The Tuscaloosa County Commission unanimously approved to proceed on preliminary planning of a $13.1 million expansion of the medical and mental health facilities at the Tuscaloosa County Jail.

At a specially called meeting Wednesday, the Commission looked at several projects that would make use of funds provided by the American Rescue Act. Probate Judge Rob Robertson told The Thread that the this project is going to be vital to addressing the growing medical needs of the jail's population.

"Throughout the pandemic, we've seen a great challenge in the jail. Approximately 30% of the inmates have some sort of mental health condition, some diagnosed and some not," he said. "This expansion will help bring those facilities up quite a few notches."

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Robertson said that the $13.1 million price tag is still very preliminary. What the Commission approved was to start the process of planning and designing architectural work.

Working in the probate court, Robertson sees mental commitments on a daily bases. He said he understands the size of the population coming in and out of existing facilities.

At Bryce Hospital, for example, patients fill the facility's 268 to capacity, to the point that if they were to admit a new patient, they'd have to discharge another.

"We are absolutely out of resources for mental health. It is broken," he said. "We need some state partners, we need some federal funds, but we are committed as a group to figuring this out, and developing the designs to present our case."

As for an actual timeline on the project, Robertson said it would be hard to say. But he said he would be dedicating the majority of his time and resources in the coming year to the development process.

"We can't just keep waiting, this needs to be done," he said. "The Commission unanimously felt it was time to proceed. If we don't start now, we're just gonna be that much further behind in the future."

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