Patients held in the maximum security section of the Whiting Forensic Hospital are not permitted to be present while their belongings are searched.

Of the 224 patients held at Whiting Forensic Hospital on June 28, a little more than half were hospitalized after being found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity. The remaining patients at the state’s maximum security psychiatric hospital faced no criminal charges and were civilly committed, or were there to be restored to competency so their criminal cases could be resolved.

But all, regardless of the reason they were admitted, are prohibited from being in their room when their belongings are searched by staff and police  — a restriction they might not have faced had they received psychiatric care at any other behavioral health facility in the state.

This distinction, and its attendant loss of civil liberties, is one that has long troubled advocates for those with mental illness.

Now they have an opportunity to do something about it.

The Whiting Task Force, which was formed in the wake of a patient abuse scandal that resulted in criminal charges for 10 employees, is reviewing the search policy at the behest of advocates like Kathy Flaherty, the executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project Inc.

Flaherty recently stressed to members of the task force that not all Whiting patients have committed violent crimes.

“So, to even sometimes start with the premise, … we’re only talking about these very dangerous and scary people, and that’s why they’re locked up at Whiting,’ is actually factually incorrect,” said Flaherty.

The state’s Patients’ Bill of Rights has been in existence since 1971. Lawmakers amended it in 1993 to allow patients of Connecticut’s behavioral health facilities to be present when their belongings are searched.

Whiting’s maximum-security facility is the lone exception to this provision, meaning all of its patients — including those who have not been accused of violent crimes — are not permitted to be present while their belongings are searched.

Assessing the implications of that policy is among the charges of the eight-member Whiting Task Force. On Aug. 5, the group listened to the rationales for the exception’s existence, and why they should consider recommending lawmakers amend it in a future legislative session.

“At the core of this I think is always the balancing of the safety of the patients and the staff who work there, with providing an appropriate therapeutic milieu that respects people’s rights,” Dr. Tobias Wasser, the hospital’s medical director, told the task force.

Property and body searches at Whiting’s maximum security service are conducted by police officers. Wasser said there are two types of searches: random, which generally occur weekly and when patients are out of their rooms like during meal time, and planned, which are conducted when an item goes missing that staff are concerned could be fashioned into a weapon.

“There are plenty of times room checks happen and patients aren’t aware, because everything is at it was,” said Lori Hauser, a clinical psychologist at Whiting and a member of the task force.

Wasser said finding contraband happens “regularly,” but finding items that threaten safety happens less often.

“It’s more than 1 percent of the time we are finding items that are of significant concern,” he said.

Hauser cautioned that the hospital has a “very, very small exception in our population” who exhibit anti-social tendencies and have personality characteristics that make them want to inflict harm on others. She expressed concern those individuals could use being present during a room search to better understand how to hide items they could use to hurt patients or staff.

“This isn’t theoretical; this has happened,” Hauser warned. “We have had individuals who have broken off pieces of things they used to be allowed to have in their rooms, and fashioned them into shanks, secreted plastic knives and later used those to be shanks, parts of razor blades, parts of tiles, parts of you name it, anything they can find.”

Task force members questioned whether such searches harm positive clinical relationships crucial to patients’ success at a facility like Whiting. Wasser said he did not believe patients not being present as their rooms are searched negatively affected the hospital’s ability to effectively treat its patients.

“This is always the struggle in running a forensic institution, or a forensic hospital,” Wasser said. “We want to put treatment first, but the reason we exist is because there are some individuals for whom the risk is so great that there’s nowhere else for them to be treated. So, we have to have practices and policies that keep everyone who lives and works there safe.”

Safety concerns aside, Wasser said he was open to tweaking the process so it better respects patients’ civil liberties.

Removing the Whiting exception from the state statute would still allow the staff to restrict patients’ rights to be present while their belongings are searched, Flaherty said, suggesting the hospital could adopt a personalized risk assessment that would allow facility employees to make a determination on a case-by-case basis. The default position in every other mental health facility in the state is patients have a right to be present unless doing so would medically harmful to them, Flaherty said. “The default in Whiting is exclusion.”

Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, is an advocate for patients being treated at the Whiting Forensic Hospital. Julia Werth / CTMirror.org

The issue, task force member Michael P. Lawlor surmised after hearing Flaherty’s explanation, is flipping the presumption that all Whiting patients are excluded from being present during searches. It’s not as though the task force must suggest a mandate that all of Whiting’s patients be in the room while their belongings are searched.

“It’s not a blanket policy one way or the other,” Lawlor said.

Other behavioral health facilities in the state, Flaherty said, allow patients to be present during searches when they’re first admitted, despite not knowing those patients’ full psychological histories.

“It seems a little bit disingenuous to say, ‘Whiting is the one place in the world that doesn’t have the ability to do that.’ And I actually don’t think that’s true. I think it’s just, a legislator dropped something in, said, ‘Oh let’s have an exception for Whiting,’ and people have been going on with that since 1993, with apparently no real thoughtful discussion.”

The task force did not yet make a decision on whether to recommend a change to the exception provision. They are required to do so no later than Jan. 1, 2021.

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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