Safety issue raised at Hawaii State Hospital
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
Legislators, Käne'ohe residents and the union for Hawai'i State Hospital employees are raising concerns about a cost-cutting decision in December to lay off state security guards at the psychiatric facility, dramatically decreasing the hospital's security force.
Tommy Johnson, Department of Public Safety deputy director, said 17 "security officer" positions statewide were cut to save about $584,000 and allow DPS to return to its "core functions" of corrections and law enforcement.
Most of those 17 positions were at the state hospital, though Johnson could not give an exact figure.
Some 18 private security guards who already worked at the hospital picked up extra duties or were moved to different spots to make up for the loss of the state guards, the Health Department said.
No new private guards were hired, however.
"They didn't replace them," said state Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Käne'ohe, Kahuku), who has introduced a bill that would require the return of the DPS guards. "They redeployed private security guards and put the hospital at greater risk."
Hee added that there are "life and death" situations at the facility, and rather than decreasing the number of security guards the state should be bolstering it.
"Assaults happen there on a daily basis," Hee said. "Somebody is going to get hurt."
The state hospital is the only state-run psychiatric hospital in Hawai'i, and it houses a number of patients who have been sent there after committing crimes, some of them violent.
The cut to security guards comes as the hospital grapples with a host of safety concerns, including assaults on staff and patient escapes — both of which nudged up in 2009 — and a patient population that is well above its licensed optimum level so far this year.
Meanwhile, the hospital is seeing its own forced budget cuts and worker furloughs.
The state guards at the hospital were under the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the prisons and includes the state sheriff's division. The hospital, near a residential area and Windward Community College, is managed by the Department of Health.
The state hospital has a $749,142 contract for this fiscal year with security firm Wackenhut, said hospital administrator Mark Fridovich.
The existing contract is about the same as the one used in the previous fiscal year to pay for private security that was at the time meant to augment coverage provided by the state security guards.
Fridovich said the contract was not expanded to include more security guards because of a lack of money.
The DPS guards had been charged with securing the perimeter and entrances at the facility for 16 years, until they were removed in December.
Critics of the cut say the decrease in guards at the hospital is particularly distressing in light of the increased census.
But they also want to see state guards return because they believe they're better-trained and more equipped to handle volatile situations.
DPS disputes that, saying that the private guards can do the same work as the state security officers.
A bill (SB 2919) moving through the Legislature would require that the state guards return to the hospital, and calls for the state to formulate a short- and long-term security plan for the Käne'ohe facility and investigate the hospital's capacity issues.
Its proponents say the hospital, though under the jurisdiction of the Health Department, should be secured by DPS guards because of the high percentage of court-ordered admissions at the facility. Nearly all of the admissions at the hospital last year were sent there by the courts after committing a crime.
And about 25 of those admitted last fiscal year committed felonies "against another" person. A breakdown on the felonies was not available.
"Everybody recognizes the state hospital was never designed as a forensic facility. It is being used as something that it was never intended," said State Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Senate Health Committee.
He said the bill is about recognizing the population — and potential threats — at the state hospital.
As of last week, there were 198 patients at the facility. The hospital is budgeted and licensed for 168 beds, and the higher capacity requires waivers and the use of substandard rooms.
Some say the higher population at the hospital may be contributing to the uptick in assaults on staff and the increase in escapes last year.
There were 164 staff assaults at the facility in 2009, up from 150 in 2008.
Assaults are down, though, when compared with the 187 in 2006.
So far this year, there have been 13 assaults.
Assaults can include bodily harm, actions such as spitting or verbal assaults.
Meanwhile, DOH said, there were eight escapes from the facility last year — slightly higher than the six in 2008 and nearly triple the three in 2007, but far fewer than the 10-year high of 28 in 2001.
All but one of the patients who escaped in 2009 has been found.
David True Seal, who was acquitted by reason of insanity of two counts of first-degree sex assault and kidnapping on Maui, escaped from the hospital Dec. 3.
Police have no leads on him, a Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman said.
Seal escaped while state DPS guards were still manning the perimeter and entrances, according to Department of Health officials. The last day for the DPS guards, who were first stationed at the hospital in 1993, was Dec. 18, DOH said.
NO GUNS FOR GUARDS
Johnson said the guards at the state hospital did not have the same level of training as corrections officers or state deputy sheriffs. He also said concerns that the private security guards can't do the same job as the DPS officers are unfounded, since the DPS guards didn't carry guns or have arrest powers.
He said the private guards, like the state ones, can affect a citizens' arrest.
"The private security firm can do the same thing" as the DPS guards.
Fridovich said the hospital has used private security since 1996 to supplement security provided by DPS, so using private guards is not new. Officials also said the DPS guards were not charged with doing any work inside the facility.
The DOH also pointed out that security at the hospital is being improved through other means, including the installation of new perimeter fencing and security cameras, though it acknowledged more work needs to be done.
"The hospital has adequate (camera) coverage of the entire campus and is continuing to improve the coverage with additional cameras, but given the size of the facility and the design of the facility, there are areas where coverage could be improved," Fridovich said last week in an e-mailed response to questions.
For many, those improvements aren't enough.
The Hawai'i Government Employees Association, which represents about 300 state hospital employees, said furloughs of many of those workers coupled with previous understaffing issues and the new concerns on overcrowding have created a volatile workplace where many fear for their safety.
Nora Nomura, HGEA deputy director, said not having the state guards on the campus "is going to have an impact."
She said the guards need to be brought back, and she added that the hospital also needs to tackle staff assaults and should come up with a long-term plan to address security.
"Our main concern is for the safety and the health of our members," she said.
Nomura testified in support of the bill that would bring back state guards.
She said the state guards assigned to the state hospital may not have had the same powers as state deputy sheriffs, but they knew the facility well and were well-versed on how to defuse difficult situations.
"They know the system," she said. "They know what to do."
Several residents have also testified in support of the bill, which has passed through two committees.
John Flanigan, who is on the hospital's community advisory board and is a member of the Käne'ohe Neighborhood Board, said he has also heard from a fair number of residents calling for the DPS guards to be brought back, while also pushing for other security improvements at the hospital in light of its recent staffing and census issues.
The private guards "don't have the same degree of expertise," Flanigan said, adding that people are focusing on the guard issue because "it's an example of their concern."
Flanigan also cautioned against overstating the security concerns at the hospital, pointing out that the vast majority of people at the facility are not violent.
Many also acknowledge the situation at the hospital pales in comparison to the state of the facility in the 1990s, when it faced a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department over conditions.
Part of the new push for security improvements, though, is being spurred by fears the facility could return to those dark days.
"The hospital has problems," Flanigan said. "They're overcrowded. They're understaffed. They're underfunded."