The D.C. public defenders office and a staff member at St. Elizabeths Hospital have contended that Cuban refugees housed at the federal mental hospital have been given drugs without their consent.
The allegation by the public defenders office was made in a suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court. The suit also asserts that the refugees are being "illegally confined" at St. Elizabeths because U.S. officials did not go through the usual procedures, including a court hearing, by which an individual can be confined in a psychiatric facility.
Yesterday, Judge John Garrett Penn, responding to the public defenders office suit, said he would hold a hearing Monday at which the government must show that sufficient legal grounds exist to continue to hold the Cubans at St. Elizabeths.
The judge also said that the Public Health Service staff, which is caring for the Cubans, may administer drugs to the refugees without their prior consent only in those cases in which a refugee poses a danger "to himself or the community."
Only 68 Cubans remain at St. Elizabeths following three days of disturbances in which the refugees clashed with police, broke several windows and heavily damaged the interior of the building where they were housed.
Monday night, after a group of the refugees chased staff members out and took over the building for about eight hours, 19 of the refugees, identified by federal authorities and public health officials as "troublemakers," were flown to federal facilities in Springfield, Mo., and Lexington, Ky.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post yesterday describe diagnoses made by members of the psychological staff at Fort McCoy, Wisc., of the refugees who came to St. Elizabeths. They conclude that most of them are suffering some form of schizophrenia. Several others were said to be suffering from depression. A few were classified as "suicidal," according to the documents.
Dr. Larry Silver, the public health psychiatrist who is heading the Cuban project at St. Elizabeths, said about half the patients were receiving some form of medication ranging from high-strength tranquilizers to antidepressants. f
But he denied that any the 68 refugees were being administered drugs against their will. "Nothing is being done behind the patients' backs," he said.
However, yesterday was the first day that the Cubans received written information in Spanish concerning their right to refuse the medication, Silver said. Some refused to take it. Previously, he said, his staff, some of whom are Spanish-speaking, had orally explained the patients' rights to them.
But one staff member, who asked not to be named, told a reporter that the Cubans were never informed of what medication they were taking or their right to refuse.
Silver said that after a disturbance Sunday night, five Cubans became uncontrollable and were forcibly injected with sedatives after they were deemed to be a danger to themselves and others. He said one of these Cubans had taken a piece of broken window glass and tried to cut himself; another had threatened to injure another refugee. These five were admitted to St. Elizabeths as involuntary patients. In order for them to remain at St. Elizabeths, they must be given a hearing before a judge within 10 days, Silver said.
But in the suit, public defender Harry Fulton alleges that all the refugees should have been afforded a formal hearing procedure before their confinement. Government officials contend that immigration law permits them to put detainers on would-be immigrants for the purpose of evaluating their mental state.
But Fulton argues that the Cubans were already evaluated in the refugee camps in Wisconsin and Indiantown Gap, Pa. The law "governing the examination of refugees for purposes of exclusion [from the U.S.]," the suit says, does not provide for postexamination psychiatric confinement and associated forced drug administration."