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Coalinga State Hospital Is Sitting Nearly Empty

Remote location of the new facility for violent sexual predators makes it hard to attract staff.

March 05, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

Former Rep. James Rogan, who co-wrote the sexually violent predator law as an assemblyman from Glendale, said prosecutors seem satisfied the law is working. Its primary purpose, Rogan said, was to ensure that sexually violent predators stayed out of the community.

"The implied secondary purpose, of course -- where there's any mental health need -- was to try to have the resources to do whatever degree of rehabilitation can be done through medicine and psychiatric help," he said. "I regret that it's not happening."

The efficacy of treatment for these inmates is a matter of professional debate, as is whether the men have a true psychiatric disorder. They have nevertheless been channeled into an increasingly crowded state mental hospital system. At Atascadero, they have clashed with severely mentally ill patients, exploiting them for sex, drugs and money.

Planned since 1998, Coalinga presents its own set of problems. Hospital documents show that the initial staffing plan last July was for two officers -- and no professional caregivers -- to monitor each unlicensed, 50-patient unit around the clock. After officers protested, the plan was changed to include at least one psychiatric technician.

The officers -- relatively poorly paid and untrained as caregivers -- have been directed to attend to patients' needs by passing out shaving kits, monitoring showers and writing reports on aggressive outbursts

At the other four state mental hospitals in California, such officers investigate crimes and respond to disturbances. Patients are monitored by nurses and psychiatric technicians at ratios of at least one licensed staffer to six patients.

"The officers weren't expecting to be on a unit baby-sitting these guys," said Officer Bill Muse, Coalinga's representative for the Hospital Police Assn. of California and a former Atascadero officer.

"They were under the assumption that they were going to be doing police work," he added.

So far, only the best-behaved patients have been moved to Coalinga, but some already have been caught with illegal drugs and homemade alcohol known as pruno, officers said.

"The patients are getting jacked up," Muse said, "and something's going to happen."

Just two units at Coalinga are licensed for treatment, and they are almost full already. Hospital spokesman Tom Hunt, who spends much of his time seeking recruits at job fairs and vocational schools, said the hospital can seek to have more units licensed as needed.

But attracting skilled staff may continue to be difficult. Coalinga is not just off the beaten path; its jobs are often demanding and not that high-paying.

"The problem is going to be if they can't find the staff and people want the treatment and they can't get it," said Daniel Brzovic, associate managing attorney for Protection & Advocacy Inc., a state contractor that advocates for mental patients' rights. "Then I don't see any justification for the hospitalization."

Several patients said they were relieved to be away from Atascadero, where tensions with treatment staff erupted often.

"They treat you pretty decent here," said Anthony Iannalfo, 63, a three-time convicted rapist who committed his last offense 24 years ago and has declined formal treatment because so few patients have won release that way. "The officers, they seldom come out of the office, but when we ask them for something, they do it right away -- when you need your hall card or you want to shave."

Though Iannalfo refuses to go beyond the first phase of treatment, he is taking a depression management class and has signed up for "relapse prevention."

But the shortage of licensed staff members underscores these patients' strange brand of purgatory. A group in one unlicensed unit spends time building model motorcycles with paper, string, straws and the foil from potato chip bags.

For now, as patients move into unlicensed dorms with names such as Catalina and Pebble Beach, critics say California's sexually violent predator program looks more like upscale incarceration. The men mostly peruse things in the library, work out in the gleaming gym and choose from classes such as computers, history and art. A woodworking shop sits unused since a teacher recruited last fall left.

"We've been saying all along that this isn't about treatment," Jean Matulis, a Pacific Grove defense attorney, said of the state's suspension of licensed care in most housing units. "This just confirms that."

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