Monday, February 13, 2006
Placement of Violent Inmates at County Hospital Is Criticized
Civil Grand Jury Calls Practice of Mixing Prisoners, Other Patients a ‘Disaster Waiting to Happen’
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Los Angeles County officials are creating a danger to other patients by placing violent inmates in wards with members of the general public at the county’s main hospital, an investigation by the county civil grand jury has found.
An average of 15 inmates daily were placed in “open ward” beds during a sample of 34 days between May and September of last year, even though space was available for them in a secure ward at the hospital dedicated to housing inmates, the grand jurors found. The report said a shortage of nurses prevented the county from fully utilizing the jail ward.
A copy of the report was obtained Friday by the MetNews.
The grand jury entitled its report “A Disaster Waiting to Happen at Los Angeles County General Hospital.”
In a cover letter dated Tuesday, grand jury foreperson William E. Max declared:
“This jury finds that the present situation at Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center (LAC USC) endangers the residents of this county and that measures to correct the situation must be taken immediately.”
Max said the civil grand jury, which is described on the county’s Web site as a “watch-dog” panel of 23 citizens who serve full-time for a year investigating the operations of county governmental agencies, expected a response from county officials within 60 days.
The report explained that the hospital’s 13th floor houses “the only jail inpatient program” in the county. While it originally had 50 beds, that was later reduced to 35 — the average number of inmate patients per day — to make room on the floor for an outpatient clinic, the report noted.
The jail ward is a “secured facility” with a staff of approximately 10 deputies, the report said. But because there are only three nurses assigned to the ward for each eight-hour shift, the grand jury explained, only 15 inmates can be housed there.
State law requires a nurse-to-patient ratio of at least one to five, the report pointed out.
During the 34 days reviewed by the grand jury, 496 inmates were placed in open wards, the report said, “many of classified as ‘Escape Risk,’ ‘Mentally Ill,’ and extremely ‘Dangerous’ individuals.’” Of those, the grand jury said, 147 had been charged with or convicted of drug offenses, 35 with robbery, 33 with assault with a deadly weapon, 30 with sexual assault, 24 with homicide, and 18 with grand theft.
Though the inmates are chained to their beds, the eight-foot long restraints permit them to “make physical contact with others in the room and with visitors,” the report said. It noted that though deputies conduct hourly checks on the inmates place on open wards, “[i]nmate-patients are cognizant of this hourly procedure.”
They are not allowed visitors, but screening is inadequate to prevent them, the report asserted.
The grand jurors described the other patients who share space with jail inmates as “unsuspecting,” adding:
“The medical staff and other patients (up to six per room) have no information on the criminal charges or convictions of the inmates.”
On the average, the hospital houses 687 patients a day, the report said.
“The policy of mixing patients and inmates every day exposes thousands to grave bodily harm and death,” the report asserted.
The grand jurors noted that the county has had difficulty finding nurses willing to work in the jail ward. Unlike the nurses who staff the medical facility at the Twin Towers Jail, who are employees of the Sheriff’s Department, jail ward nurses receive only the same pay as other nurses at the hospital, the report pointed out.
A proposal to provide either bonuses or comparable pay for jail ward nurses was put forward by the county Department of Health Services in June, but was rejected by the county’s chief administrative officer, the report said.
“Inequitable pay to nurses within the county system makes it difficult to recruit and retain nurses for the Jail Ward,” the jurors concluded.
They recommended that the county:
•Use the Twin Towers Jail medical facility for some procedures, such as suturing, minor surgery, and setting broken bones, now performed at the county hospital;
•“Fast track implementation of” a “telemedicine program,” for which the Sheriff’s Department has already received funding, which would allow doctors at the hospital to remotely diagnose and prescribe treatment for inmates at the Twin Towers facility;
•Increase pay for hospital jail ward nurses, either by reclassifying them to match the classification of nurses hired by the Sheriff’s Department or by paying them bonuses; and
•“Cease and desist accepting inmate-patients for bed placement on Open Wards amongst the general public.”
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company