Atascadero State Hospital cracks down on contraband

In the first week of searching Atascadero State Hospital employees for contraband, administrators found items ranging from compact discs to cigarette lighters.

ASH employees are being checked for personal items such as chewing gum and hairbrushes to reduce what officials consider contraband from getting into the hospital.

Employees aren’t allowed to bring in personal items outside of what’s necessary for work, such as a lunch, ASH spokesman Craig Dacus said.

“Combs or hairbrushes (that) contain metal may be used as weapons,” Dacus said. “And chewing gum may be inserted into door locks to prevent them from locking.”

Electronic devices, such as iPods, are also restricted.

Another worry is that these items could fall into the hands of the patients and become currency, said state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo.

“More capable patients will prey on weaker patients and use these as payment to get them to commit acts,” Blakeslee said.

ASH officials would not disclose examples of any such incidents there.

Employee searches began July 29 after an unannounced but routine hospital-wide security drill that had started two days before, Dacus said.

The search of employees is different than its visitor screening process, which is part of ongoing and regular procedure.

During the drill, Atascadero State Hospital Police Department officials became concerned over the contraband found on employees, Dacus said.

Administrators then decided to continue screening staff in the lobby to raise awareness of contraband. Employees now empty their pockets and ready their bags for inspection by hospital police.

Metal detectors were also moved from further inside the hospital to its front lobby.

“While staff have always been subject to random searches, this is the first time in recent memory that metal detectors have been used to screen all staff,” Dacus said.

Police generally tell staff to return the items to their cars.

Officials have not set a date for when the searches could end, Dacus said. Additional employees weren’t hired to conduct the searches.

Contraband smuggling at the state’s five mental health hospitals is a problem statewide, Blakeslee said.

The state Legislature has passed Blakeslee’s bill designed to make providing contraband to patients a misdemeanor because it can be used as currency. The bill is now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

A bill banning tobacco from state hospitals was also passed about two years ago.