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Security Issue Putting San Quentin Nurses At Risk

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San Quentin State Prison (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Quentin State Prison (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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SAN QUENTIN (CBS 5) – The hospital at San Quentin State Prison may provide state-of-the-art care for inmates. But CBS 5 has uncovered a security lapse that may be putting nurses at risk.

“I was alone as the sole registered nurse with 25 inmate patients,” prison nurse Trish Peterson recalled.

Peterson said she was treating a prisoner when she became the captive. A custody officer accidentally locked her inside a hospital cell and walked away with the keys. “I was in shock; absolute, dumbfounded, shock,” she said.

Her only weapon: an insulin syringe as she faced off with “three-striker” 56-year old Lamont Williams, who is serving life for assault and robbery. “He’s a big strapping healthy appearing inmate who could easily have taken me down and killed me,” Peterson said.

Williams’ prison gang’s unwritten rule is to do just that: kill staff if and when the opportunity arises.

But on this day Williams did not and instead joined Peterson instead to call for help. She said five minutes of screaming and pounding felt like an eternity.

“My head was spinning. It just felt forever,” Peterson said. It’s a nightmare from which she can not wake.

“I have issues with doors. I need to know where the doors are. All it takes is one angry inmate to hurt somebody,” she said.

Peterson believes the fact that he had visitation that day saved her. He didn’t want to lose his privileges, so he behaved, she said.

CBS 5 has learned in the outpatient housing unit where Peterson was locked in, nurses routinely enter prisoners’ cells without an escort, even though some of the inmate patients are considered high-risk.

San Quentin spokesperson Gabe Walters said, “Its just one of those jobs where you hope you can go home at the end of the day, and it’s not guaranteed. “

Walters admits guarding inmates at the new $136 million prison facility, the first of its kind in the state, can be a challenge.

“You are always trying to blend two different mindsets, your medical and your custody. It’s a delicate balance, a very delicate balance,” he said.

That’s as far as Walters would go. However, a veteran San Quentin corrections officer who wants to remain anonymous out of fear of losing his job told CBS 5, “there are many close calls at the new hospital.”

Because of Trish Peterson’s cell nightmare and now CBS 5’s probe, custody practices at San Quentin were being reviewed.

“We would obviously be reviewing our policy procedures, how our staff are moving in and out of those cells,” said Walters.

But Peterson acknowledged being the catalyst of change comes at a price. “There’s fear of retaliation. It’s a fear of mine. But more so is the safety of my colleagues. I am not going to be the person that looks the other way,” she said.

For now, Peterson said she wants to be reassigned to a different part of the hospital. That request has been denied by the medical staff.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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