Friday, November 16, 2007

Feedlot Government: Coalinga and the Consequences of Our Fears

Our desires have consequences. For meat eaters in California that becomes evident near a place called Coalinga, where extensive cattle feedlots abut Interstate 5 which runs between LA and Northern California. Coalinga by happenstance (one assumes) is also the home to a different kind of animal storage facility, although not one you can see or smell from I5. Coalinga State Hospital, the first state mental hospital built in nearly half a century in California (a subject in itself I will blog on soon), is dedicated fully to housing a special category of California criminals that California (and other states) invented in the 1990s. Sexually violent predators, a term which has no known scientific basis, are convicted sex offenders who are civilly committed on the completion of their prison sentence on the grounds that they are mentally abnormal and a continuing danger. The programs are supposed to provide treatment, and periodic hearings are intended to prevent the state from confining people unnecessarily (being they've already served punitive prison sentences).

The problem is that only a tiny handful of people have gotten out so far, and they have found themselves celebrity monsters, chased across the landscape by television and sometimes real mobs. The result is a growing new sector of California's mass incarceration government. It may not churn the stomach as much as the feedlot's you see from I5. But as a recent story by Scott Gold and Lee Romney of the LA Times suggests, human feedlots produce their own kind of disgust.

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.

Almost all of the detainees at Coalinga have served time for serious sexual offenses. But instead of being released after completing their sentences, they were transferred to the state hospital system under a 1995 law that allows the state to declare certain high-risk sex offenders mentally ill and commit them to psychiatric facilities.
Detaining someone under the law is constitutional provided that the patient receives treatment. But today, significant treatment at Coalinga is rare. Administrators acknowledge that three-quarters of the hospital's 600-plus detainees refuse to participate in a core treatment program, undermining a central piece of the $388-million hospital's mission.

Some patients have also declined to eat for days at a time to protest alleged inadequacies in psychiatric and medical care as well as less important issues, including limited access to phones. Many have boycotted educational and improvement programs that include anger management workshops, computer training and Spanish classes -- a protest known inside the hospital as a "strike."

A severe staff shortage has further impeded treatment, patients and staff members say. As of last week, 26 of the hospital's 37 budgeted staff psychiatrist positions were vacant. On many wards, hospital police officers fill roles assumed by clinicians at other hospitals.
"We're calling it the Titanic State Hospital," said a psychiatric technician who, like most other current employees, spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from administrators. "We've lost control. I've been saying for a couple of months now that the monkeys are running the circus."
Coalinga opened in September 2005 amid promises of a new era, both in protecting the public and in treating sex offenders. Even empty, the facility stood out; its sleek architecture and tidy topiaries presenting a jarring contrast to the tumbleweeds and dust devils that dominate the surrounding landscape.

But the operation of Coalinga -- the only mental hospital built in California in half a century -- was never going to be effortless.

Read the article by Scott Gold and Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

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