Thursday, November 15, 2007

Turmoil replaces treatment at Coalinga hospital

BREAKDOWN: A state facility meant for sexually violent predators gets low marks after two years.
Los Angeles Times, By Scott Gold and Lee Romney

Two years after California opened the nation's largest facility designed to house and treat men who have been declared sexually violent predators, Coalinga State Hospital is described by both patients and staff as an institution in turmoil.

Convinced that they stand little chance of being released and angry about perceived deficiencies at the hospital, patients are engaged in a tense standoff with administrators, according to interviews with more than 40 patients and staff members. ...

Michael Feer, a psychiatric social worker with more than three decades of experience, worked at Coalinga for a year before leaving this spring. He now works in San Diego County with recently paroled sex offenders, men who in some cases committed the same crimes as those at Coalinga but who are being released into the community, he said.

Feer said that although all Coalinga patients qualify as violent predators on paper, he believes that more than a third of them would pose no threat if released.

"They did their time, and suddenly they are picked up again and shipped off to a state hospital for essentially an indeterminate period of time," Feer said. To get out, he added, "they have to demonstrate that they are no longer a risk, which can be a very high standard. So, yeah, they do have grounds to be very upset."

The hospital, Feer said, "is a setup" -- ostensibly a treatment hospital but one built with a wink to a public that has little compunction about locking up sex offenders forever. ...

The core sex offender treatment involves such activities as a "psychological autopsy," a detailed accounting of decisions that preceded an offense. ...

As of August, two years after Coalinga opened, not a single patient had been released because of completion of the treatment program. Of the more than 600 sexually violent predators who'd been committed to the facility as of August, the latest figures available, 17 patients had been released, all of them after petitioning in court. ...

In August, for instance, according to staff members, a group of patients taped small protest fliers to their hospital-issued identification tags. Most read: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty." Hospital officials ordered patients to remove them.

"They said they were defacing government property," a clinician said. "But they were just making this up as they go."

It did not end well; officers eventually hauled away one patient who refused to take off his protest flier.

"They made a martyr out of him," the clinician said. "The next day, patients had bigger pieces of paper taped to them that said: 'Please don't hit me because I'm wearing this piece of paper.' " ...

Others, however, have gained the attention of a congressionally charged, federally funded group that advocates on behalf of people with physical and mental health disabilities. Protection & Advocacy Inc. attorney Sean Rashkis said the group was investigating patients' concerns.

"They have done their time and have moved into a civil commitment which is based on treatment," he said. "Some of the patients argue that that's not what they are getting. It may be the case. We'll have to see." Full Story

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