The state institution most neglected by the public and legislature now has a new distinction: the institution that’s been fined by the same government that runs it. That happened last week when safety investigators from the state Department of Labor & Industries quietly issued a $9,200 penalty citation to the Department of Social and Health Services for security breakdowns at Western State Hospital in Steilacoom. The mistakes, L&I indicates, aggravated a bloody Easter Sunday assault by a violent criminal patient that sent five hospital workers to the emergency room.
The 13 violations reflected rudimentary breakdowns: The hospital failed to provide an emergency line for the two nurses and three attendants to call for backup help, and lacked a supply of padded shields that workers could use to defend themselves. Sundiata Botley, 28, who has a record of violence and theft, allegedly beat the workers with a fiberglass bar he found in the offenders ward. He is now charged with the attack that left a woman, 63, with broken teeth and bones.
Many of the L&I violations were repeats from earlier safety incidents despite a 1997 agreement to fix problems, investigators said. Western employees have regularly complained about serious understaffing. In the locked forensic services/legal offenders unit where the attack took place, just two nurses and two attendants tend to more than 30 mentally ill criminal violators (see “Ill winds,” SW, 5/20).
“These people are in fear working there,” says Tim Welch of the Washington Federation of State Employees. Earlier this year, federal inspectors threatened to pull Western’s $56 million US funding in part over staffing levels. It was the second US defunding threat in two years at the troubled, 127-year-old facility.