Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: State hospital workers need stronger protections

Protecting our community is about more than just keeping offenders off the streets. It’s also about ensuring a safe environment for the men and women who work in dangerous facilities like Atascadero State Hospital and the California Men’s Colony. These are our neighbors who put their lives at risk every day to keep us safe.

The Tribune recently ran an editorial by representatives of the police officers at Atascadero State Hospital highlighting a troubling problem (“State hospital police need equal legal protection,” March 4). The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association revealed that although laws have been written to protect prison officers from a particularly malicious type of assault known as gassing, these protections do not exist for workers at Atascadero State Hospital.

Gassing involves using human bodily fluids as weapons, dangerously exposing employees to communicable diseases such as hepatitis. Many of the offenders at facilities like Atascadero State Hospital have spent time in prisons where gassing attacks are on the rise.

According to a recent report produced by the Department of Mental Health, 21 percent of the population in the facility have hepatitis C. Nationally, between 30 percent and 40 percent of prison inmates have hepatitis C and about one in four are infected with tuberculosis. The risk of contracting one of the dangerous communicable diseases is not just a threat to the men and women working in these facilities, but their family members as well.

Under current law, the gassing of a correctional officer at the California Men’s Colony is a felony. But if that same offender is transferred to Atascadero State Hospital and gasses a hospital police officer, nurse or psych technician, the assault is considered a misdemeanor battery and often goes unprosecuted. It is a matter of common sense that state workers who oversee the same dangerous population should have the same protections against assault.

The consequences for these vicious assaults should be consistently applied to offenders, whether they perpetrate the attack while in a prison or in a state hospital.

It was not long after I first came to the Assembly that I learned about the challenging conditions facing the staff at California’s state hospitals. Psych technicians, doctors and nurses, mental health experts and police officers at facilities like Atascadero State Hospital work with some of the state’s most dangerous and disturbed offenders. These workers do not benefit from the high security of a prison setting. There are no locked cells or armed guards to protect these men and women who work on the front lines of the state’s forensic hospitals.

During my first term in office, through a number of personal meetings and community town halls with Atascadero State Hospital staff and their concerned family members, I first learned of the dangerous conditions facing hospital workers. Over the next several years, I authored and the governor signed legislation (A.B. 1880 and A.B. 3010) to improve staff safety, address retention challenges and improve the treatment setting for patients while reducing costs to the state.

This week, in partnership with the employees at Atascadero State Hospital, I am proud to have introduced legislation to extend to state hospital employees the same protections against gassing currently afforded those working in our state prisons.

I am grateful to the men and women who work at Atascadero State Hospital who have accepted a difficult and dangerous job so that our community can be safe. We have a responsibility to them and their families to ensure that they are protected from harm.