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State mental hospitals remain violent, despite gains in safety

Assembly members are told of improvements at Napa State Hospital, where a technician was strangled, but the facility logged 3,000 aggressive acts last year.

October 09, 2013|By Lee Romney

NAPA, Calif. — It has been nearly three years since psychiatric technician Donna Gross was strangled on the fenced grounds of Napa State Hospital — a slaying that helped expose a systemwide problem with patient violence.

Although safety has improved since then, violence is still far too high, exacerbated by an increasingly prison-savvy population with predatory tendencies, an Assembly committee was told Wednesday. The committee focused its attention on the Napa facility, but will also be examining the other four state-run mental hospitals.

The sprawling, 19th century Napa campus has been outfitted with a state-of-the-art wireless alarm system that has improved the response time of hospital officers. A funding increase has led to more hospital police inside the fenced area where patients accused or convicted of crimes are held. And a designated grounds crew monitors patient behavior to help prevent assaults, hospital Executive Director Dolly Matteucci testified.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), head of the Select Committee on State Hospital and Developmental Center Safety, and Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) also heard from staff members who praised Matteucci's leadership for working with the union-based Safety Now Coalition to improve conditions.

But Napa State Hospital logged about 3,000 acts of aggression against patients and staff in 2012, and of concern to employees and hospital police who testified was the increasingly violent nature of the patient population.

About 90% of the patients served by the five state hospitals — the others are in Atascadero, San Bernardino, Norwalk and Coalinga — are channeled through the criminal justice system, a radical shift from two decades ago.

"Are we turning our hospitals into more of correctional facilities?" Yamada asked. "We're going to have to be really careful in balancing those needs."

Levine put it more bluntly: "Many prisons have turned into de facto mental hospitals. Well, the fact is this hospital turned into a de facto prison."

Karl Johnson, a Napa State Hospital police investigator and representative of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Assn., said the facility launched a program this year to track gang members admitted to the facility. With tattoos, they are visible to rivals and have engaged in violent showdowns in residential units, he said.

"They not only take advantage and terrorize our patients but our staff as well," said Johnson, who noted that officers are now working closely with admissions units to know in advance about gang-affiliated patients moving to other parts of the hospital.

Zach Hatton, a recreation therapist and chief steward for his union, was among those advocating for so-called enhanced treatment units, where the most difficult patients would be segregated.

An Assembly bill that would require the units failed in the last legislative session, but Yamada said she is hopeful it will move forward next year.

Hatton told of a patient who killed another at Napa, then was sent to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino after the homicide was ruled justifiable self-defense. He went on to beat a fellow patient to death at Patton over the Labor Day weekend and has been charged with murder.

David Lovell, a criminal justice expert for Napa County, testified that the county jail simply cannot handle severely mentally ill patients who are sent there from the psychiatric hospital after committing assaults or killings.

"These are hospitalized patients. They require a hospital level of care," Lovell told lawmakers. "This is a level of treatment that a jail, particularly a small jail, simply cannot provide. It would be just as absurd as expecting us to construct an intensive-care unit for cardiac patients."

lee.romney@latimes.com

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