November 13, 2007

Problems continue at newest California civil commitment center

I haven't seen much media coverage of a 3-month strike by civilly detained sex offenders at the new Coalinga State Hospital in California.

Today, the detainees issued a press release claiming that a patient's death last Thursday illustrated a pattern of inadequate medical care for the aging men. Frank Valado, 45, apparently collapsed and died while playing basketball last Thursday.

Although hospital administrators are denying the strike's existence, sex offenders say the nonviolent revolt is in its third month and that they have effectively shut down all sex offender treatment. Among the patients' main grievances are inadequate psychological evaluations and medical treatment. The average age of detainees is 51, about 20 years older than the average state prisoner in California, and many of the men have substantial and costly medical problems.

The $400 million hospital, which opened two years ago amid great fanfare, houses more than 600 patients out of a capacity of about 1,500. Most are sex offenders who completed their prison terms and were then civilly committed as Sexually Violent Predators.

The hospital has had enormous trouble recruiting staff; I personally have received multiple enticing offers to relocate to the tiny, out-of-the-way Central Valley hamlet that in my mind will always be connected with its 1983 earthquake. (After the quake, a popular T-shirt read, "Where the hell is Coalinga?") Last year, the L.A. Times reported on unrest among both patients and in-house police over the hospital's suspension of normal staffing levels due to an inability to recruit qualified staff. According to detainee spokesman Michael St. Martin, the hospital currently has only four licensed psychologists and only three psychiatrists, the latter recruited from India.

The latest problems come as the U.S. Department of Justice continues its probe into deficiencies in the state hospital system, including at Coalinga.Four of the five state hospitals in California are operating under a sweeping federal consent judgment reached last year. Earlier this year, staff members at Coalinga and other state hospitals protested outside their facilities to decry unsafe and deteriorating conditions, according to an L.A. Times article on May 22.

The detainees have a web site that is worth checking out. Other sources of information include a web site at Geocities and the Sex Gulag blog. On Aug. 27, KPFA radio also covered the strike, which started Aug. 6.

My related blog posts are here and here.