Norfolk Regional Center

The entrance of the Norfolk Regional Center.

The Norfolk Regional Center has a long history, but today it works to safely rehabilitate sex offenders.

Currently, 88 patients reside at the regional center, which only serves men, said Tom Barr, facility operating officer.

The patients are in one of two programs. The larger is the Mainstream program.

The patients in this program are convicted sex offenders who served their prison sentences but were deemed unsafe to return to society, Barr said.

“The majority of men that come into this program are getting out of prison,” he said. “Many of them are very angry to be here.”

Only the first phase of the Mainstream program is held in Norfolk. After patients complete phase one, they are transferred to the Lincoln Regional Center to complete phases two and three, Barr said.

The other program is the Lifeskills program. This is for men who have committed sex-related offenses but who also have serious mental health issues, Barr said.

The Lifeskills program teaches the patients things such as anger management, managing finances, how to have healthy relationships and being self sufficient, Barr said.

All patients receive 40 hours of treatment per week. There is no voluntary treatment program at the regional center, Barr said.

Barr thinks the regional center provides an important service to the state, he said.

“The most important reason (for the regional center) is that we’re helping keep the community safe,” Barr said. “(The patients) are in a secure environment and they’re being rehabilitated so they’re safe when they’re released.”

Not all patients will complete their program, Barr said, although most do.

When it comes to security, Norfolkans need not worry, Barr said.

There have been no recent escapes from the facility. For security, the doors and windows are all locked and the center is surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, Barr said.

“It is very secure,” he said.

There was a failed escape attempt in 2017, though, when two men leapt out of windows, according to a Daily News article.

The regional center may be less safe for its workers, though. The center employs more than 200 people, and sometimes employees do get assaulted by patients. Occasionally, patients also will assault each other. These events occur only rarely, though, Barr said.

Patients are divided into groups of 15 to 25 people and response teams are always standing by if a situation starts to escalate. These measures mitigate the risk to the center’s employees, Barr said.

WHAT IS NOW the Norfolk Regional Center opened in 1888 as a state insane asylum, Barr said.

At its height, there were about 1,300 patients and the facility was self-sustaining, with its own power plant and No. 1 ranked dairy herd in the nation, Barr said.

Many of the patients at the time did not have actual mental illnesses but were sent to the facility for reasons like homelessness, Barr said.

In the 1950s, new treatments became available for mental illnesses, and the facility focused on treating real mental health issues, Barr said.

Mental health care reform in the early 2000s at the state level brought new changes to the regional center, and by 2010 the facility was solely treating sex offenders.

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