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Federal lawsuit alleges harrowing conditions, abuse in New Jersey psychiatric hospitals

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — An advocacy group for people with disabilities filed a lawsuit against New Jersey officials on Tuesday, alleging harrowing conditions and systematic violations of patient rights in four state-run psychiatric hospitals.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Disability Rights New Jersey, alleges that the "reality on the ground" at four hospitals — Ancora Psychiatric Hospital; Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital; Trenton Psychiatric Hospital; and Ann Klein Forensic Center — is "more akin to psychiatric incarceration" than to a setting where patients can get proper care.

"Individuals have been sexually, physically, and emotionally assaulted, sometimes resulting in permanent injuries or death," the group said in a statement released along with the lawsuit.

The 99-page complaint names state Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman and acting Health Commissioner Kaitlan Baston, whose departments oversee the hospitals, as defendants, along with the state itself.

It asks the court to order reforms including better security provisions and discharge planning at the hospitals, where a combined 1,150 people are confined, and services to help patients transition back into the outside community. Disability Rights New Jersey also calls for the establishment of a stakeholder advisory group for the system and monetary penalties should the state not comply.

Reached Wednesday, spokespeople for the departments of Human Services and Health said the state wouldn't comment on pending litigation.

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'Violent and abusive conditions'

The suit isn't the first sign of problems at the hospitals. New Jersey's Office of the Public Defender filed a class-action suit in 2018 over conditions at Greystone Park. In an eventual settlement, the state agreed to address staffing issues at the facility, upgrade security protocols, and take steps to ensure the availability of medical care, equipment, and drugs.

The suit says seven “unexpected deaths” occurred in the hospitals between March 2019 and June 2022, ascribing them to inadequate supervision, delayed medical responses, and failures to follow safety procedures.

"Individuals confined to state psychiatric hospitals are continuously exposed to violent and abusive conditions in direct contravention of federal and state law,” Disability Rights New Jersey says in its lawsuit.

The suit also said that patients are denied access to necessities, even water for drinking, which is allegedly kept behind locked doors. Patients sleep in "cramped spaces with two to four patients sharing bedrooms with minimal natural light," the complaint states, highlighting a lack of personal space and privacy.

The suit criticized the hospitals for a lack of individualized counseling, even when dealing with personal anguish. "Patients do not receive individualized treatment for trauma, much of which is sexual in nature," the complaint added. "Rather, treatment is provided in the form of these group programs."

Staffing shortages

According to the suit, hospitals are understaffed, leading to frequent cancellations of therapy sessions altogether.

Staff shortages have also allegedly resulted in a lack of supervision that has produced violent and disrespectful conditions. The suit cites patients who have to take group showers and complain of living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

"Imagine living in an environment where even the most basic choices are taken away from you — when to wake up, when to go outside, when to have a drink of water," said Bren Pramanik, managing attorney of the group’s Institutional Rights team. "And, in place of psychiatric treatment, you face both boredom and violence on a daily basis.”

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Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network. Follow Gene Myers on X @myersgene.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: New Jersey psychiatric hospitals accused of putting patients in danger