ABC15 Investigation exposes a 'shocking' level of violence at the Arizona state mental hospital

PHOENIX - An ABC15 Investigation has discovered there are hundreds of assaults a year at the Arizona state mental hospital, leaving patients and staff with serious and sometimes permanent injuries.

Hospital staff are injured so frequently and severely they miss thousands of hours of work every year, records show.

It's a level of violence that experts say belongs in the streets not in a public hospital that treats our state's mentally ill.

Check the video player at the top of the page to watch a violent attack caught on camera.

"It's huge. It's catastrophic," said Dr. Mark Wellek, who has run a private mental hospital and is the former president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry.  

Assaults Every Day

The Arizona State Hospital, known as ASH, is located in the heart of Phoenix at 24th and Van Buren streets.

On average, 230 patients are committed at ASH. Almost all of the patients are court ordered to the hospital and are severely mentally ill or criminally insane.

The ABC15 Investigators have spent more than eight months investigating safety and security at ASH. We've reviewed thousands of pages of public records. We've also compiled and analyzed reams of data.

**Click here to find interactive graphics along with facts, figures and data that detail the level of violence at the Arizona State Hospital

Our investigation has uncovered a "shocking" amount of violence.

From June 2012 through June 2013, patients committed 855 assaults – either patients assaulting patients or patients assaulting staff.

Hospital officials said they did not have detailed information on assaults prior to June 2012.

But despite the number of assaults, hospital officials have continually reduced the size and function of the hospital's security staff.

"Where there is security, it is possible to provide help," Wellek said. "Where there is not security, all you can do is cover your ass. That's not treatment. That's simply every man for himself."

The ABC15 Investigators have spoken to dozens of hospital insiders, both current and former employees.

They've told us stories that go far beyond what statistics show about the level of violence inside the hospital walls.

In the past six months alone, hospital staff have suffered:
-       Broken jaws
-       A broken arm
-       A broken ankle
-       One man nearly lost an eye
-       Multiple concussions

Last December, one woman, who worked as a psychologist, was beaten so badly she may never work again due to a permanent brain injury.

Terrified Staff

ABC15 is protecting the identities of staff who spoke to us, for fear of retaliation.

But one woman told us she quit after working at ASH for just four months.

She said it was a job she loved. But she no longer felt safe after a patient gave her a concussion and left her with cuts and bruises across her face.

"I was thinking ‘Oh my god I'm going to die,'" she said. "'I can't believe I'm being beaten up, this is what I heard about. This is what happens every day.'"

Another insider, who said she was assaulted several times during her time at ASH, said that the level of security is so low that staff sometimes use their patients for protection.

"There have been issues where I've had to go deal with somebody in a psychotic episode, and the other patients have had to come follow me and as they would say ‘get my back' because I'm by myself," she said.

Wellek said that's a serious problem.

"That is not a hospital environment. That is the street," he said. "It's just another addition of the street. The street has entered the hospital."

"It's anti-treatment. It's hurtful, and it's dangerous," Wellek said.

Hospital Officials Respond

To get answers, the ABC15 Investigators sat down with the hospital's former CEO Cory Nelson.

Nelson was promoted earlier this year and now oversees the state's behavioral health services.

"Actually I think the hospital is doing great," Nelson said.

A year ago, Nelson cut ASH's security force by more than half . He also renamed security as "campus support" and left patient-care staff to do their own security.

He believes he's made the hospital safer.

"We've reduced the number of workers' compensation related claims by 30 percent," Nelson said.

But ABC15 obtained those workers' compensation records . They show since 2011, hospital workers have been injured from an assault more than 520 times.

That's an average of 200 a year – that number has not gone down.

When asked if he has workers who have been off for months because of assaults, Nelson said, "Sure we have."

When we asked him if workers have missed years, he answered, "You know, I can't answer that one."

Since 2011, injured hospital workers have missed more than 24,000 hours of work . Some of that time

off may include injuries that were not caused by assaults.

"Some of the staff I'm sure probably do not feel safe," Nelson said. "But when you look at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, they rated some of these facilities some of the most challenging in the United States."

The fact is there are now more administrators than security staff at ASH. And sources say that the staff is pressured by the administration not to report assaults.

In July 2012, Nelson sent an email to all hospital employees encouraging them to explore other options before calling police to report assaults.

One source told us that email was "manipulative and disrespectful."

"One of the last sentences I said in the email is that it remains their choice," Nelson said. "I would like them to consider all factors when they make that choice."

But it's only when staff call police that the public gets a chance to find out what's going on at the hospital.

Going to the police is the only way ABC15 could obtain the surveillance video of a violent fight at the hospital.

ASH officials have refused to turn over any of its surveillance footage, citing privacy concerns.  

But the video gives us a glimpse into the daily violence that takes place at ASH. It's violence that has caused many hospital workers to quit in fear for their safety.

Dr. Wellek worries staff turnover means patients won't get the help they need.

That's a problem for all of us since almost every patient at ASH will someday be released.

"The situation is a disaster," Wellek said. "That's all I can think of is a terrifying, frightening, humiliating, embarrassing, uncomfortable, dangerous disaster."

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