NORWALK — Mayor Marcial Rodriguez said he is still dissatisfied with security measures at Metropolitan State Hospital, even though hospital officials have revamped admission policies following the Dec. 12 escape of four patients, two of whom were considered dangerous.
"It's like a country club over there," the mayor said in an interview this week.
Hospital officials Monday signed an agreement with the Orange County Mental Health Department that will prevent dangerous prisoners from being admitted to the mental hospital, a top hospital official said.
Rodriguez, however, said that despite the agreement, security is still too lax at the hospital. Under the agreement, the hospital will not accept for treatment or evaluation prisoners whose bail is $10,000 or more and who have been charged with crimes such as attempted murder or assault with a deadly weapon, said Don Miller, the hospital's executive director.
The hospital already has a similar written agreement with the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department but previously had only an informal, unwritten policy with Orange County.
Used Hacksaw Blade
In an interview, Miller said the lack of a formal policy with Orange County was to blame for the admission of two of the four patients who escaped Dec. 12 by using a hacksaw blade to saw through a metal screen on a second-story window. Two were Orange County men who were too dangerous for the hospital's minimal security and should never have been admitted, Miller said.
"In the absence of any real hard and fast criteria for admission, there was a loose application of the rules" by hospital officials, Miller said. "It was a slip-up, but I'm not interested in finding fault; I'm more interested in preventing it from happening again."
On Dec. 19, Rodriguez sent a letter to hospital officials that said he and other members of the City Council were "extremely appalled" by the hospital's lack of security and decision to admit the patients who subsequently escaped.
The two escapees from Orange County have since been recaptured: William Sanders, 23, of Huntington Beach was committed to the hospital after he allegedly tried to kill his mother; John Martinez, 30, of La Habra was committed on suspicion of kidnaping. A third patient, Jose Martinez, 27, who was not considered by authorities to be dangerous, climbed out the window with the others but surrendered before leaving the facility.
Still At Large
A fourth patient, Brian Cincotta, 22, of Redondo Beach, committed after he was charged with burglary, is still at large.
Miller said that the hospital will continue to accept prisoners like Cincotta who are charged with burglary because, while he might be "dangerous as a burglar, I don't think he is particularly dangerous to people."
"If somebody gets out and goes down to the local bakery and steals a few rolls, that doesn't concern me," Miller said. "If they get out and try to kill somebody, that concerns me."
Rodriguez said it does concern him.
"If they're going to allow these people to wander out in the community to do some shoplifting, who's to say they (patients) are not going to do something more violent," Rodriguez said. "Why are we spending money for an institution if they (patients) are going to be allowed to come and go as they please?"
Miller, however, replied that the hospital is not a prison and that the facility's main responsibility is the treatment of mental illness. He said that three to four patients who are not considered dangerous wander off the grounds every month.
The hospital has 850 patients, 150 of whom were committed after criminal charges were filed against them, Miller said. Until December, he said, the hospital had not had an escape by a patient under criminal charges in approximately three years.
However, three to four patients a month walk off the hospital grounds without permission, Miller said. Many of these patients have been committed voluntarily and have permission to walk the hospital's 150 acres, Miller said.
Lt. Norm Smith of the county sheriff's Norwalk substation said that though he has no statistics on it, there is a periodic problem with patients wandering away from the facility.
The hospital is surrounded by an iron fence 8 to 12 feet high that was built after a patient stabbed a 4-year-old boy after escaping in 1980. However, the hospital's gates are not locked during the day and its guards do not carry guns, Miller said.
More Prison Inmates
Los Angeles County officials have requested that Metropolitan State Hospital officials accept an increase of 200 prison inmates a month for treatment and evaluation. The hospital, however, can only accommodate 150 additional prisoners, Miller said.
If the increase is approved by hospital officials, the hospital will request that the state install metal detectors to check for weapons and escape tools, Miller said. The inmates who would be brought to Metropolitan State for evaluation and treatment would not be considered dangerous, he said.
Dangerous inmates are sent to institutions with greater security such as Atascadero State Hospital and Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, Miller said.