- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
On June 6, an employee at Atascadero State Hospital was knocked down a staircase. Hidden in one of the hospital’s back corridors, away from hospital security cameras or any witnesses, the employee was hit from behind by an unknown assailant. The hospital was put on lockdown—meaning no one could get in or out—while hospital officials performed a head count of every patient and began investigating who was responsible for the attack.
Though full hospital lockdowns are fairly rare at ASH—with maybe three or four occurring per year, according to one hospital employee—attacks on staff are an increasingly somber reality of the job. Indeed, violence is a regular occurrence for both staff and patients.
As of press time, the investigation into the staff attack was still open, and the employee was in stable condition.
Statewide, the call for increased safety at California’s five forensic mental hospitals seems to have hit a rally cry. Following the death of Donna Gross, a psychiatric technician at Napa State Hospital who was strangled to death last October, employees from every state hospital coalesced into a massive call for more protection. Legislators have jumped on board, too, with four separate bills authored by three lawmakers—including San Luis Obispo Sen. Sam Blakeslee—aimed at addressing safety concerns.
On May 25, a Senate subcommittee approved funding that will allow the Department of Mental Health (DMH) to hire 40 new police officers and distribute them among the most severely understaffed hospitals.
But ASH—one of the largest and most violent hospitals in the state, with a population of about 1,200 patients—will receive no extra officers. With about 20 unfilled police positions currently, the hospital likely won’t even be reviewed for extra staffing for another two years, when the budget cycle comes back around.
A team of five unions that represent the majority of employees at DMH hospitals, Safety Now!, organized this year with the goal to improve staff safety. An increased police force came out as one of the main priorities. According to Coby Pizzotti, legislative and political liaison for the union California Statewide Law Enforcement Agency (CSLEA), the request was originally for 90 additional officers, but “we’re incredibly happy with what we got.”
Of the five hospitals in California, ASH was the only hospital that didn’t receive funding for more police, aside from Coalinga State Hospital, which houses one of the least violent patient populations of the five hospitals for forensic patients.
Meanwhile, ASH is gearing up to create new units specifically designed to house the worst of the worst—those patients who contribute the most attacks and aggressive behavior. Yet the depleted police force doesn’t know how it will meet the demands of those new units. And ASH’s police officers continue to struggle with a chronically low pay scale compared to that of other similar agencies.
“Basically we’re not able to recruit the numbers that we need because of the disparity in pay,” said one hospital employee who asked to remain anonymous.
An ASH spokesman did not return a call for comment before press time.
According to hospital employees, ASH frequently loses new recruits who quit for the better pay and benefits offered by places like the California Men’s Colony.
Patton State Hospital in Southern California was allocated 20 new officers, the most of any hospital. Pizzotti said Patton was the most understaffed and therefore, DMH and Safety Now! officials determined, was most in need of extra help. He added that legislation is expected to pass in California that will move more high-risk patients to Patton and ASH. But ASH, he said, will take on the influx of patients through its new special treatment units.
One ASH employee told New Times he wasn’t aware of any local police representatives present at those discussions.
In fact, a majority of ASH officers fled CSLEA membership. Many officers broke from the union and attempted to join the Police Officers of California, a splinter group that to date hasn’t been recognized as a union by the DMH. Most ASH police are no longer represented by CSLEA.
State officials say that the allocation of new police officers was a utilitarian maneuver.
“It appears that the Department [of Mental Health] and CSLEA looked at where there is the most need for new positions,” a representative from Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian’s office said in an e-mail to New Times. “It is my understanding that the three hospitals that are proposed to receive new positions have a … higher number of unfilled posts and spend significantly more on overtime than ASH does.”
Yet ASH ranked among the most, if not the most active hospital in the state in 2010, according to DMH records that were immediately available. Last year, for example, ASH had the most seclusion and restraint episodes—when a patient must be forcibly restrained or secluded—of any state hospital for every month except February. The hospital also had the most patient injuries per month. Furthermore, ASH ranked among the highest of state hospitals for staff injuries, according to DMH records.
The next allocation for police officers, if it comes, won’t arrive until the next two-year budget cycle.
“It’s kind of one of those things where you can only bite so much off in one year,” Pizzotti said.
Additionally, ASH and the DMH as a whole are in the midst of leadership changes. In the months following Gross’ murder and the ensuing pressure from employees, the public, and the media, former DMH director Stephen Mayberg announced his retirement.
ASH Executive Director Jon DeMorales has also announced his retirement. The hospital has yet to name a successor.
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.