CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — On Dec. 10, a dozen correctional officers wearing tactical gear entered the state’s psychiatric ward to search rooms for contraband, and now advocates are calling the move highly inappropriate and abusive.
Disability Rights Rhode Island executive director Morna Murray sent a letter to state leaders last week, saying she reviewed surveillance video of the search at the Benton facility of Eleanor Slater Hospital, and concluded it was “excessive and abusive.”
“The alarming video of the December 10, 2021 search at Benton reflects a deeply concerning culture at ESH, and indicates that patients with disabilities are at continual risk of abuse and/or neglect,” Murray wrote to Richard Charest, director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which oversees Eleanor Slater.
According to Murray, the video showed a nurse pointing out the security cameras to officers before making an “obscene gesture directly to the camera with her middle finger, while a male patient is observed, unclothed, lying near her on the floor.”
Over the next hour, the male patient was held down, forcibly given a chemical restraint, grabbed by staff and physically dragged across the floor, according to the letter. Target 12 has independently confirmed the details of Murray’s letter with multiple people familiar with the content of the video.
“The male patient was observed still lying on the floor, in apparent distress, wearing no clothing other than boxer shorts and socks,” Murray wrote. “As the order is given to remove the remaining patients from their rooms, twelve (12) DOC officers, one after the other, step over the petite-framed, older male patient with no apparent regard for his safety or human dignity.”
The advocate said at no point did anyone try to assist the patient, as he remained on the floor while the correctional officers continued to search other rooms. He was then abused by a younger patient inside his housing unit, according to the letter.
“During this altercation, the older patient’s hand can be seen being bent backwards for a prolonged time and to an extreme angle by the younger patient, who then throws the older patient to the floor,” Murray wrote. “At no time did the attendant sitting outside the unit intervene, or provide medical care.”
Murray’s letter — first reported by The Providence Journal — is the latest in a slew of reports from various organizations detailing problems at Eleanor Slater. The state-run hospital comprises Zambarano in Burrillville and three more units including Benton in Cranston.
The hospital has come under intense public scrutiny in recent years for patient endangerment, insufficient staffing, improper billing practices and failures of leadership, which Murray outlined in her letter.
Last year, Gov. Dan McKee and Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones laid out a plan to overhaul the leadership at the hospital, a decision that was supported by the union groups that represent the majority of hospital employees.
Despite those changes, Murray said leadership problems remain.
“We believe there are critical problems in the leadership and administration at ESH and pertinent authorities should be aware of these problems,” Murray wrote. “Patients at ESH must receive appropriate care and treatment in a safe environment, free from abuse, neglect and intimidation.”
The search of the Benton facility — which houses psychiatric patients — was done as part of a corrective action plan put in place after a previous incident involving a female patient who attempted suicide on several occasions. Murray said that patient was the last person searched, and she was placed against the wall and appeared “visibly anxious as eleven (11) members of the search team surrounded her, in an apparent show of intimidation.”
“During her search, she was directed to step into her room, off camera, while search team members enter the room with her as others watched from the doorway,” Murray added. “It should be noted, no other patient at Benton was singled out and treated in this manner.”
Overall, Murray said the search wasn’t done in accordance with hospital policy, and she expressed concern about the fact that it was correctional officers — some with stun guns — who led the effort. According to the letter, the officers came from the R.I. Department of Corrections, which oversees the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston.
“At the outset, it should be noted the search took place in a psychiatric hospital,” Murray wrote, adding that she’s troubled by prior communications from Director Charest that indicated he plans to use correctional officers to train his own staff on proper search procedures in the future.
“We are concerned this kind of treatment has been and will be repeated with this patient and others, due to any number of factors including understaffing, poor training, poor morale, outright disregard of ESH policies and procedures, lack of leadership, and lack of accountability,” Murray wrote.
State officials had no immediate comment Monday, but Slater spokesperson Randy Edgar confirmed in December that correctional officers searched and found contraband on Dec. 10. He did not answer follow-up questions about what kind of contraband was discovered.