Contraband fight gets a boost

Each of the state’s five mental hospitals, including Atascadero State Hospital, now have the legal tools to ban certain contraband items from inside their facilities.

Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed legislation requiring the state’s five mental hospitals to develop lists of contraband items specific to each of their facilities.

State hospitals had policies outlawing certain items of contraband — such as illegal drugs and razor blades — from getting into patients’ hands until 2009, when a patient challenged the regulations because they were not official, said Erica Costa, legislative director for the office of Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, who wrote the bill.

That challenge, which Costa said didn’t occur in court but within the state Office of Administrative Law, ended up rescinding hospitals’ previous policies, leaving administrators without the official tools to ban what they deemed as contraband from inside their facilities.

But Assembly Bill 2531 now makes contraband policies official and enforceable.

“This is giving them the legal power to outlaw certain things,” she said.

The issue of contraband has taken a renewed interest among state officials in recent years because of the worry that already-aggressive patients would use such items as currency or weapons to commit violent acts inside the facilities.

The most recent bill requires the Department of State Hospitals to have each of its facilities develop a committee to create a list of items deemed as contraband.

Costa wasn’t certain what the deadline is for hospitals to comply with the new law, but did say that the law requires the lists to be posted inside each facility and be updated every six months.

In the statement, Allen characterizes contraband as “a constant and sizable problem” at state hospitals. The Department of State Hospitals reported to Allen’s office that more than 3,000 items of contraband were confiscated systemwide in fiscal year 2010-11. Items ranged from “shanks, razors and lighters to illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol,” according to a news release from Allen’s office.

Contraband items also led to 123 hospital lockdowns over the same period, the statement says.

ASH employees told The Tribune that tobacco smuggled in by an employee was part of a string of incidents that caused a lockdown at the facility in April 2011.

However, ASH administrators declined to ever confirm why the multiweek lockdown took place.

Lockdowns limit activity within the facilities by keeping patients inside their sleeping and living units.

Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, also targeted the contraband issue. In September 2011, Brown signed a bill that made it a misdemeanor for visitors to provide contraband to patients.

The law, written by Blakeslee, Allen and Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, fines smugglers up to $1,000 for each prohibited item.