After receiving numerous complaints from patients at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP), the ACLU of Colorado initiated an investigation into allegations of a mass strip search and search of patient’s property. The investigation resulted in CMHIP revising its written policies and procedures.
CMHIP officials initially emptied two wards of CMHIP using a false fire alarm. While the patients were sequestered in other parts of the hospital, Pueblo County Sheriff’s officers entered the rooms of every patient on the ward and gathered all their personal documents, including correspondence, medical records, legal papers, pictures, diaries, and treatment checklists. The documents were held over the weekend, and in some cases patients alleged were not returned for almost thirty days. Patients alleged that some of their property was mixed up in the property of other patients, read in front of them, or not returned at all. One patient described his room as “ransacked;” another patient noted “footprints all over my bed.”
In one of the wards, every patient was subjected to a strip search by hospital police prior to being allowed to return to their rooms, which patients described as “humiliating” and “degrading.” Many patients also described mistrust and anger over the search, which they said seriously impacted their treatment and trust in CMHIP staff.
CMHIP officials asserted that the mass search and strip search was necessary in response to allegations that certain patients were involved in illegal financial transactions and drug dealing. In a letter to CMHIP, however, ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass noted that “only specific and reliable information of pervasive and widespread involvement would justify searching and confiscating the property of every…patient, and strip searching every patient in [a particular ward]…Many patients, however, allege the complaints…involved only a few individuals.” Pendergrass stated that “when conducted without proper legal or factual justification, and without proper training for staff, [mass searches and strip searches] would violate the due process and statutory rights of all patients…to receive reasonable care and treatment, in the least restrictive conditions, with respect for the dignity and personal integrity of the patients.”
CMHIP has indicated that it is now revising its written policies and procedures for searches and the seizure of patients’ property.
Taylor Pendergrass , ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney
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