Aug. 16, 2007 Coalinga Update:

Sex offender Civil Detainees in California's Coalinga State Hospital strike to demand civil rights

Former prisoners now being held as Civil Detainees under California's stringent sex offender laws at Coalinga State Hospital have been on strike since August 6 to demand the restoration of rights denied them since their transfer to that facility. Now classified as "Civil Detainees", having served their entire sentences in the Department of Corrections and placed into the custody of the Department of Mental Health (DMH), they insist that conditions under which they are being held are flagrantly unconstitutional and inhumane. They argue that restrictions and privations imposed upon them go far beyond the narrow constraints under which the laws were enacted. The U.S. Supreme Court, while having upheld the constitutionality of state laws detaining sex offenders beyond their prison terms to protect society and treat offenders, insist that such further detention not have the effect of punishing offenders twice for the same crime.

Despite a $400 million price tag, Coalinga State Hospital is now widely viewed as an ill-conceived failure. The strike, its organizers assert, had become necessary in the face of an administration unaccountable to the rule of law or its mandate from voters. Strike participants seek to expose medical and mental health abuses in excess of those in California prisons, tax funding fraudulently misspent and a mission subverted to the career interests of officials.

Staff who express concern with the facility's management and "counter-therapeutic" treatment programs are seen by residents to leave the institution quickly and this, at a time when DMH acknowledges staff shortage as a major factor in its failure. The decision to build in Coalinga has been criticized by State officials due to difficulty in attracting qualified professionals to the area. Staffing is less than half of that required so half of the Hospital's units remain unopened while the other half is overcrowded, an exigency due to severe understaffing. As in State prisons, recreational areas are converted into makeshift dorms while more recent detainees languish in other DMH facilities or county jails awaiting a bed space in Coalinga.

Detainees allege they have been lured into treatment programs with the false hope that they may one day reenter society, saying that in the eleven years since civil commitment laws were enacted, only two castrated Detainees have won their freedom while several others have been placed in residential treatment programs. All of those released were through court order.

Key issues leading to the strike:

  • Clinical assessments are rarely performed on individual Detainees. State evaluators whose recommendations are critical in civil commitment trials spend little or no time with detainees before issuing their reports, relying instead on aging court or police records. Lacking current information, test results, or objectivity, their reports are routinely skewed against Detainees, who see them as merely tools for the prosecution.
  • Abysmal medical care. Life-threatening conditions are often ignored or inadequately treated. Medical staff recommendations for Detainee health are routinely overruled by non-medical staff.
  • Many program staff have quit. Detainees say that, amongst those few clinicians genuinely interested in providing effective patient treatment, many have left due to encroachment by administration and police staff into the management of treatment.
  • Conflict of interest. Acting Hospital Director, Rocky Spurgeon (the third Director in a little more than a month), is a defendant in ongoing Detainee lawsuits dating to before his current appointment. Clearly, Detainees seeking legal redress continue to be under the authority of those very individuals from whom they seek relief.
  • Lack of independent and professional oversight by outside organizations. The Hospital falls short in standards of care and management set by federal guidelines and even by those of California 's Department of Corrections, an agency now under court order to address gross deficiencies in health care, overcrowding, and humane treatment. Coalinga has been left largely unmonitored by either state or federal oversight or by professional organizations, such as the American Psychiatric or Psychological Associations.
  • Many custody police are compelled to enforce punitive restrictions imposed by administrative officials. Mandatory searches of each detainee's property are conducted weekly without probable cause. One police complained that, having previously worked in California's prisons before coming to DMH, he found the conditions in DMH to be far more restrictive than those imposed on inmates in state prison, despite the emphasis received in his training that "this is a hospital, not a prison".
  • Nutritional deficiency and dreadful food quality. Coalinga meals are widely regarded as much worse than state prison food, itself known for poor quality. Staff discard extra food but deny seconds to hungry Detainees, despite ever smaller portion sizes. Nutritious food purchased by family and friends on the outside to send in monthly packages are forbidden but junk food-chips, cookies, candy, and ramen-are allowed.
  • Communication with the outside world. Letters and communications, even those with attorneys, are subject to staff scrutiny. Many believe that staff listen in on phone calls. Staff arbitrarily refuse mail, including treatment and college materials, without notification.
  • Absence of Detainee rules for conduct and rights under an appeals process. There is nothing equivalent to CDC's Title 15 delineating rules to which inmates must adhere or rights which they possess. Nor are there precedents that actions contravening Detainee rights will result in discipline for staff or Detainee remedy. Instead, rules are issued arbitrarily by individual staff as directives, many of which are mutually contradictory and have no legal basis. Rules from one housing unit to the next differ widely, with Unit Supervisors making abrupt policy decisions without accountability to the law or administration. Property room staff, while allowing one detainee an item, will deny another an identical item, even when on an "approved" list. This, combined with the capricious enforcement of rules as a form of harassment, has created an atmosphere of constant uncertainty and turmoil for Detainees.
  • Inmate library consists largely of children's books and juvenile-level materials. Titles featuring "Cinderella" are well represented in the library's collection and Detainees who desire more intellectual reading challenges find no support from staff. Beyond the library, censorship to absurd levels is imposed on all books, periodicals, and other media which the Detainee wishes to buy with his own money. Also, all items purchased by inmates must be ordered through a handful of institutionally approved vendors, a selection process without transparency and one which effectively imposes trade restraints on legitimate vendors.
  • Inmate financial resources, earned as a result of work performed in the prison (averaging about $1.25 a day) are controlled by staff who must approve any expenditure in excess of $100, even if it is cash to be sent to family, and can refuse without explanation. Detainees do not receive interest accrued from their funds.
  • Complete lack of privacy. Detainees have no privacy in any aspect of their daily lives, save for stall doors in restroom toilets, and they are in continuous view of staff and other Detainees. As Justice Louis Brandeis, in his now-famous dissent in the 1928 Supreme Court decision of Olmstead v. United States articulated: "the right to be let alone is the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." . How is it then that "Civil Detainees", not being held for the purpose of additional punishment, are shorn of this fundamental right of human dignity?
  • Inmates are prevented from experiencing the outdoors or seeing beyond the institution walls. The largest accessible "outdoor" area is a tiny inner courtyard referred to by prisoners as "the terrarium".
  • Despite its stated purpose as a forensic investigatory hospital, DMH has published nothing of their sex offender treatment research in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Detainee family support. Visitors must be approved by administration and can be denied for any reason. There are very few telephones for use by hundreds of Detainees.
  • Bingo, conga drumming, mural painting, and popcorn snacking are often shown in reports to be "treatment" in the continuous challenge staff face in justifying the hospital's existence as a treatment facility. While many suspect outright fraud in these "treatment" expenditures, they have received no scrutiny by State regulators or the Legislature.
  • CDC prisoners , not Civil Detainees, have recently been dumped in Coalinga State Hospital alongside Civil Detainees who, after all, are not there for punishment.
  • On the use of the term "Sexually Violent Predator " (S.V.P.) to describe Civil Detainees. The term "S.V.P." has a meaning under California law quite distinct from that of any reasonable person. As it is now defined, neither actual violence nor coercion is needed for a crime to meet the statutory definition of "sexually violent". The age of the victim, non-familial victims or past convictions are some criteria useful in branding someone " S.V.P." That this definitional shift has occurred during a period of mass hysteria over sex offenders cannot be seen as coincidental. California prisons and state hospitals have been launched on a wave of distorted public opinion.
  • Recidivism rates are no higher for Civil Detainees than for other offenders not detained; between four and six percent. If the state is unable to demonstrate a difference in recidivism rates, then the very existence of the Civil Commitment program is called into question. Public safety would be truly served were funds reallocated to programs demonstrating actual success.

Since the strike began Detainee spokesperson Niles Carr has reported that the Administration has imposed further restrictions on movement and increased punishment, including loss of work assignment, for many participating in the strike. They have also announced that they will disband RPAC (Resident Policy Advisory Council, elected by Detainees). In response, Detainees Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to retain RPAC and its representatives and to stage two days of "non-movement/non-cooperation" scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, August 20-21.


Sex Gulag said...
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Anonymous said...

This is not known by general public. Is there a cover-up?