Published June 19, 2006 1 2 3 4 Next »
 
Earnest Contrillo attends a probation revocation hearing with his attorney Owen Chin in a Tallahassee courtroom. Photo by Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald

FACILITY FAILING TO TREAT INMATES

Holding the razor in his mouth, Ernest Contrillo ran the blade over his right wrist seven times as blood flowed from the crooked wounds.

It wasn't the first time he mutilated himself inside the Florida Civil Commitment Center.

A year earlier in the center, Contrillo, 52, lost his left arm to a gangrene infection he coaxed along by severing his flesh.

State records show that for four decades Contrillo had sought comfort in pain, yet he managed to obtain razor blades and cut himself numerous times in what's supposed to be a secure mental health facility for Florida's most menacing sexual predators.

Since it opened in 1999, the center - created to treat men for their sexual disorders after serving prison terms - has struggled to meet its most basic mission, let alone deal with the medical needs of men like Contrillo.

After his arm was amputated, he spent 10 days in the hospital because caregivers did not keep him on antibiotics.

In fact, a four-month review of monitoring reports, court cases and internal documents show so many breakdowns in medical and mental care that drugs often were dispensed without doctors' approval, men languished without treatment, and in some cases, those with severe psychological disorders were forced into solitary confinement - some never getting treatment for sexual problems.

Gaps in care were often noted during state reviews, but problems continued. One man was given a powerful antipsychotic drug even though he was not diagnosed with a mental illness. Another was left in an infirmary for days while urine in his bedpan collected mold.

``All I ever heard from everybody was that they were sexual predators. But they're also human,'' said Beverly Babb, a former nurse who quit the center in 2004 after a year. Said Douglas Shadle, a psychiatrist who left because of conditions: ``This is an asylum-era institution that has no place in this century.''

Despite problems, state lawmakers repeatedly refused requests to adequately fund the center. But they waived laws that require the civil commitment facility to meet state medical and mental care standards.

Seven years later, those decisions have exposed the state to a class-action lawsuit that places the entire program in jeopardy and exposes taxpayers to millions in potential court fines, a Miami Herald investigation has found.

Consider:

* For years, medical care has been plagued by shoddy record keeping, failure to provide basic checkups, delayed treatment of serious illnesses and potential violations of state and federal laws.

* Crucial medications, such as powerful psychotropic and cancer drugs, were often not available or provided to residents without proper documentation.

* Records show the center's use of solitary confinement defies state and federal guidelines.

* As the facility began filling up with mentally ill men, the private contractor hired to run the center, Liberty Behavioral Health, asked the state five times for more money and staff to provide psychiatric care. Each time, the state balked.

* As the center's population grew by more than 300 percent, its funding increased just 46 percent, leaving it to operate on a budget that's less than half of those found at other mental health facilities in Florida.

* The facility's staffing levels are now less than half of similar programs in other states.

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Introduction MiamiHerald.com