Crime

Child porn ‘epidemic’ triggers Coalinga hospital lockdown, patients file lawsuit

Officers at Coalinga State Hospital in a file photo. The hospital remains on lockdown after some patients protested a rule change banning certain personal electronic devices by rioting.
Officers at Coalinga State Hospital in a file photo. The hospital remains on lockdown after some patients protested a rule change banning certain personal electronic devices by rioting. Fresno Bee File Photo

Two patients at Coalinga State Hospital, which houses nearly 1,000 sexually violent predators, have filed a federal lawsuit against the hospital’s executive director and 10 other staff members for allegedly violating their civil rights during a recent crackdown on portable electronic devices that hospital officials say was prompted by a “child porn epidemic.”

Sacramento civil rights attorney Janice Bellucci filed the lawsuit on behalf of two patients, Michael Saint-Martin and an anonymous claimant, in federal court Tuesday night. It asks the court to immediately halt a newly implemented hospital policy that commanded all of the nearly 1,300 patients to turn over any personal electronic devices with storage space or internet access – including flash drives, MP3 players, video game consoles and computers.

The policy forces patients to consent to a search of their devices. If they agree, devices without illegal material will be sent to a location of the patients’ choosing. If they do not, the devices are destroyed. Patients have until Sunday to comply.

The lawsuit also asks for legal fee reimbursement and any additional financial damages “the court deems just and proper.”

The California Department of State Hospitals does not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Ralph Montano said.

 

The two patients claim the new policy was not enacted to stop the spread of child pornography, as the hospital told patients and the public. Instead, it was retaliation for the patients exercising their constitutional rights to gather, discuss politics and eventually vote in a local election.

In November, a 1-cent Coalinga sales tax failed by just 37 votes. Voting records indicate more than 100 patients voted against it, and the city of Coalinga has filed a lawsuit against Fresno County to dispute the election. Bellucci said she has also filed an injunction to represent the patients in the city’s elections lawsuit.

The new personal device policy went into effect at the beginning of the month, and patients began demonstrating against the policy almost immediately. By Jan. 14, the hospital was locked down. Additional privileges, such as visitation rights, were taken away. The hospital remains closed to visitors, but lockdown provisions are slowly being lifted this week.

Three patients were charged with felony obstruction of a public officer and misdemeanor rioting charges during the unrest. Two suffered minor injuries. No staff members have been hurt.

The patients’ lawsuit against hospital head Brandon Price claims that Price and his staff violated the patients’ First Amendment rights by tearing down campaign signs, taking the devices patients used to communicate and retaliating against those who voted.

It also alleges Fourteenth Amendment violations, saying the patients have been subjected to unlawful conditions during their confinement. Patients at Coalinga are civil detainees, not criminal inmates. They have all completed their prison sentences, but they’re being held at the hospital due to the danger they present to the public. They have additional rehabilitation steps to complete, and many must be housed by the state once they are released. This can take years, and many of the patients will likely spend the rest of their lives in Coalinga.

Because they are not under criminal confinement, the patients claim they have additional rights and cannot be broadly punished in this manner.

The hospital has maintained the emergency banning of personal electronic devices was in response to prisoners using them to spread child pornography.

Steve Wright, an assistant Fresno County district attorney, said his office has filed child pornography charges against 18 Coalinga patients since September 2016. Four more cases have already led to convictions, including several in which patients used electronic devices to distribute hundreds of illegal images.

More cases of child pornography are currently being investigated, Wright said.

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