Patients at Coalinga State Hospital remained on lockdown Tuesday as a few details began to emerge about violent protests that have erupted since new rules restricting the use of personal electronic devices were put into place.
Since it started this lockdown, the California Department of State Hospitals has released little information on what caused the lockdown, how that cause is being addressed or how long it will be in place and did not respond to The Bee’s questions by deadline Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Department of State Hospital officials cited lawsuit testimony claiming that a “porn epidemic” exists at the hospital.
“At least 200 Coalinga patients have been involved with the possession or transmission of child pornography and there are typically two or three new child pornography cases reported each month which require investigation,” the Associated Press wrote. “Patients also copy and sell or exchange legal movies and music for profit.”
The hospital houses about 1,300 patients, most of whom are sexually violent predators. On Sunday, it initiated a lockdown on all patients. No visitors are allowed on the campus.
But patients, attorneys and family members describe varying scenes of pandemonium throughout the hospital, as frustrations over newly tightened rules boiled over.
One patient, who did not want to be named for fear of hospital retaliation, said the lockdown went into effect Sunday after 400-500 patients met in a common area Saturday to protest new, extreme rules that began that day. These demonstrations are common in the hospital but typically only involve about 100 patients. The staff was apparently worried about this large group and called for additional security.
He stressed that most of these protests, as far as he knows, have been peaceful. This one, however, appears to have crossed a few lines.
On Saturday, a group of patients apparently threw urine at the employees of the hospital’s patient cafe. He was not sure of the scale of the destruction, but he has heard that several fires have been started since the lockdown began. A nurse’s station in unit 16 was attacked, he said, as patients apparently used mop buckets and chairs to smash the windows. His floor was flooded temporarily.
He explained that thumb drives, portable hard drives and video game consoles – which also utilize hard drives – were banned after hospital staff learned some patients were using hard drives to share child pornography. He stressed most of the patients were not using these devices improperly, but all were punished.
The AP reported that the department made 11 child pornography arrests last year at the hospital and is working with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute additional cases.
The patient said the new rule was rushed through the state hospital system in a way that did not let the patients exercise their rights to appeal. The ban was approved internally on Jan. 2, he said, and patients had to submit their appeals by Jan. 7. Given the length of time it takes to send outgoing mail from the hospital, there was no way to submit the appeals by the deadline, he said.
No information has been shared with patients, he said. They do not know why they are being locked down or how long it will last. In prison, the patient said, a memo would be given out within one day of a lockdown that would outline what happened, what the prisoners were and were not allowed to do and how long the punishment would last. He has heard from other patients that the lockdown is scheduled to end Wednesday afternoon.
Renella Smith’s son, Tim, is currently a patient at the hospital. He served a prison sentence for assault with the intent to commit rape and is now awaiting a hearing to determine if he can be released.
Tim called his mother Friday night to tell her that order at the hospital had begun to deteriorate. Some of the patients were screaming in anger as they ran around, throwing themselves against walls. One man threw a typewriter through a window. Others bought jam and jelly from the hospital’s store and smeared it across the walls. One of the security offices was vandalized.
Smith and her husband spent most of Saturday with Tim. After they left, he called them on a cordless phone shared by patients within his unit. He said he had been threatened by other inmates and was told not to attend classes, or else he would be beaten up.
Her son must attend these classes, Smith said, in order to be released. She worries that if Tim were involved in a fight, he would be disciplined, even if he was only defending himself from attack.
Smith has not been able to reach her son since Saturday night. No one is allowed to visit while the lockdown is in place, she said – not even her son’s attorney, who planned to meet with him later this week.
Several other patients and family members have also described near-riotous conditions to The Bee. Around 60 windows have been broken, they said, and staff members now need security escorts to move throughout the hospital.
Staff has threatened to take away privileges and personal devices, which some patients believe to be a violation of their rights. They point out that they have served their prison sentences and are now patients awaiting release, not prisoners serving a sentence.
On Thursday, the Department of State Hospitals approved an emergency regulation regarding digital devices, according to a California Administrative Law document.
It addresses “the possession, viewing, and distribution of illicit materials by removing digital memory storage, other means of memory storage, specified digital media players and digital media burners from the personal possession of patients.”
Patients are only allowed to have commercially produced CDs and DVDs and media players with no access to the internet, the document reads, and the hospital is allowed to supervise patients’ use of digital media.
The change went into effect on Friday and expires July 12.
A Santa Barbara attorney, who did not wish to give her name, told The Bee her client has been unable to reach her husband, who has been a patient at the hospital for a decade. The client typically calls her husband every day but could not reach him all weekend.
The attorney called the recent crackdown a retaliation against the patients’ recent dooming of a much-needed sales tax measure in the city of Coalinga.