The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that persons held in involuntary psychiatric commitment facilities are not prisoners and cannot be subjected to punitive treatment. Matt Clarke at Prison Legal News paints a vivid portrait of how prison-like these not-a-prison prisons really are. Protests met California officials when they began to make Coalinga State Hospital look even more like a prison.
On January 14, 2018, about 400 to 500 civilly committed sex offender “patients” met in the common area of California’s Coalinga State Hospital to protest a stringent new rule that went into effect that day. The rule banned the possession of electronic devices with Internet access or writable storage media, such as MP3 players, e-book readers, video games, flash drives and computer-like devices.
If a patient agreed to allow a device to be searched, it would be mailed to an address of the patient’s choosing. If no consent to a search was given, the device would be destroyed.
Hospital officials said the new rule was prompted by an epidemic of child pornography at the facility, which houses civilly committed sex offenders after they have completed their prison sentences. However, patients and their advocates claimed the rule was in retaliation for offenders at the facility influencing the outcome of a local election.
Supporting the patients’ version of events is the fact that only 18 of the hospital’s nearly 1,300 patients were charged with possession of child pornography between September 2016 and January 2018. Considering that about a sixth of the sex offenders housed at Coalinga State Hospital were previously convicted of child porn-related offenses, an average of one charge per month in such a highly-monitored population hardly qualifies as an epidemic that warrants restrictions on electronic devices owned by all patients.
In November 2017, an attempt to increase Coalinga’s sales tax by one cent failed by 37 votes. Records showed that over 100 of the hospital patients participated in that vote. The City of Coalinga has since filed a lawsuit against Fresno County, seeking to have the election results thrown out due to the allegedly “illegal” participation of the patients. Both city and hospital officials blamed the patients for defeating the sales tax hike.
According to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by two patients with the help of Sacramento attorney Janice Bellucci, the new rule was rushed into effect in retaliation for patients exercising their right to vote. The rule was internally approved on January 2, 2018. Patients seeking to appeal had to submit their appeals within five days – faster than was possible given the length of time required to send outgoing mail from the facility.
The suit accuses hospital supervisor Brandon Price and his staff of tearing down campaign signs and confiscating communication devices patients had used to organize politically. It also describes unlawful conditions at the hospital.
During protests that followed the announcement of the new rule in January 2018, patients allegedly broke about 60 windows, started several fires, caused temporary flooding, smeared walls with food and splashed at least one employee with urine. Three patients were arrested and charged with obstruction of a public officer and rioting. Two suffered minor injuries, but no staff members were hurt. Following the uprising, the hospital was placed on lockdown and security personnel escorted staff during their rounds; night shift employees staged an informational picket, claiming that the failure to increase staffing on that shift had contributed to a prolonged patient assault on a staff member.
Built in 2005, the Coalinga State Hospital, which has a secure perimeter, was intended to provide treatment for sexually violent predators until they were rehabilitated and could be released. It has a $250 million annual budget and is equipped with a gym, recreation yards and vocational workshops, making it seem better-equipped than many prisons or jails.
In reality, though, the hospital has become a prison where “patients” who have completed their sentences are held with the promise of release that rarely occurs.
“We have taken men and made them believe that if you go to these classes that you can have your life back. But that’s a lie,” stated Jeff Gambord, who has been a patient at the hospital since 2006. “It would be one thing to take these men and tell them we’re going to keep you locked up for the rest of your life. People can come to terms with that. But I want you to understand what it’s like to really come to terms with what you did to hurt women or children and to become a better person … and in spite of these changes, you can’t get out.”
According to the Fresno Bee, as of April 2018, state officials said that “only about a third of the hospital’s patients are actually taking the therapy that is offered.” The rest are discouraged by years or even decades of therapy, which includes intrusions into their personal privacy – such as polygraphs and penile arousal pressure measurement tests – that do not lead to release.
Over the past dozen years around 180 patients have been unconditionally released to live outside the hospital as registered sex offenders. During that same time period, 37 patients were approved for conditional release to continue treatment while living outside the hospital. Ten were subsequently found in violation of their terms of release and returned to the hospital, while 14 are among the 180 unconditionally released patients. Thirteen remain on outpatient status.
Violations of terms of release can include activities that are not illegal. For example, Jeffrey Snyder was arrested in March 2018 for having consensual sex with an adult male at the Fresno motel where he lived. A judge ordered him returned to the hospital for at least a year.
Like most other states’ civil commitment programs, Coalinga State Hospital seems to have morphed from the laudable idea of providing treatment to sex offenders to holding them under prison-like conditions indefinitely, using therapy as a pretext. And, of course, it would have been better to provide them with treatment while they were incarcerated rather than wait until after they had completed their sentences.
“I think there is good evidence that therapy can work. What’s not clear is whether keeping people in an institutional setting for long periods of time does,” said Dr. Fred Berlin, a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist who has specialized in sexual disorders for over three decades. “Either it’s money well spent and we’re helping people be salvaged and re-enter communities to be safe and productive members of society, or we’re just throwing money away. If it’s just a ruse and there’s not effective treatment happening, then we should at least have a conversation about it and not have treatment that seems to go on forever.”
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