Outside the nurse’s station, Sen. Sam Blakeslee heard a loud banging sound. He investigated, along with several Atascadero State Hospital employees, and found a man repeatedly punching the wall, his face blank, and his knuckles bruised.
Employees had calmed the man; then an alarm sounded, sending everyone scrambling to a secluded room where another agitated man was screaming and throwing urine toward employees who were attempting to corral the outraged patient.
In ASH, as in all forensic state-run mental hospitals throughout California, employees have to go in first—essentially to offer themselves as bait to provoke an attack before the onsite police step in.
These are the types of situations Blakeslee hopes to mitigate.
The San Luis Obispo-based Senator thinks 2011 may be the year of successful reform at the hospital. He plans to roll out a four-pronged legislative package to quell violence that has peaked in recent years.
Blakeslee, speaking with reporters after job-shadowing at the facility on Feb. 4, said he’ll reintroduce legislation that would make it a felony for patients to throw bodily fluids at hospital employees, referred to as gassing. Currently, such attacks are a misdemeanor in state hospitals, but considered a felony in the state prison system. At ASH, gassing is often unprosecuted, because a successful misdemeanor prosecution would simply move a patient into the county system rather than state prisons. The senator introduced a similar bill last year, but it died in committee.
He also plans to author or co-author bills that would give employees more leeway to medicate violent patients, make it easier to send difficult patients back to prisons, and create a high-security wing for ASH patients known to be dangerous.
The California Department of Mental Health is in turmoil after Napa State Hospital employee Donna Gross was murdered, allegedly by a patient. After that hospital’s employees called for safer conditions, Stephen Mayberg stepped down as director of the department.
State hospitals are also nearing the completion of a U.S. Department of Justice mandate in which subcontracted consultants implemented measures restricting the employees’ ability to restrain or medicate dangerous patients. Nirbhay Singh, one of the team’s leaders, recently resigned amid criticism, telling the LA Times, “Basically, my job is done.” Singh could not be reached for comment when contacted by New Times.