A nurse suffered severe head injuries when she was beaten Tuesday by a male resident at Atascadero State Hospital in the most serious assault on a state mental health employee in recent memory.
The hospital, near San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast, has about 1,200 residents -- most of whom have been convicted of violent crimes.
The nurse, 56-year-old Linda Pearson, was listed in serious condition at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday night. Atascadero State Hospital officials said they expected her to survive.
Hospital officials said Pearson and another employee were talking with resident Lonza Sudduth Jr. when he suddenly became enraged and started punching the employees. Pearson was struck several times before she fell and hit her head on the concrete floor, said hospital spokeswoman Barrie Hafler.
Court records show that Sudduth, 48, was convicted in Riverside County Superior Court in 1999 of elder abuse. He had been at Atascadero for about three years, hospital officials said. Sudduth also had prior convictions in Riverside County for driving under the influence in 1996 and selling cocaine in 1993.
After the attack, Sudduth was tackled by several employees and placed in restraints. He was later turned over to San Luis Obispo County sheriff's deputies and is being held on suspicion of attempted murder, according to police. He is scheduled to be arraigned today in San Luis Obispo.
"I think we're doing everything we can to reduce violence and injury to our staff," said Melvin Hunter, the hospital's executive director. "If I could be thinking of anything else, we would be doing it."
The hospital sits on about 400 acres and is surrounded by a 16-foot fence topped with razor wire. It is patrolled by an unarmed security force of about 140 officers, and many residents are free to wander around their units and much of the facility.
Hunter said that about 95% of the facility's residents have been convicted of a violent crime, compared with about 50% of the inmates in the state prison system. In 2002, the hospital had 250 cases in which patients attacked employees, Hunter said, resulting in 62 staff injuries and 24 employees requiring medical attention or missing time from work.
Nonetheless, Hunter said it was inappropriate to arm guards at a mental health facility because the presence of weapons would likely provoke residents. "We're a hospital, not a prison, and our primary task is to provide care for ... sometimes profoundly mentally ill patients and we do that with great skill and compassion," he said.
Most mental facilities in the country do not arm their guards, said Cindy Radavsky, assistant deputy director of long-term care in the state Department of Mental Health.
In the last month, Cal/OSHA had received two complaints from employees about conditions at the hospital, said spokesman Dean Fryer. He would not specify the nature of the complaints, but said that the agency had looked into both matters and resolved them.
The last serious assault at Atascadero was in 2001 when a resident gained access to a locked wing and attacked an employee. She recovered from the beating.