09/24/2014 04:55 EDT | Updated 11/23/2014 05:59 EST

Ralph Atkinson speaks out about strip search at Capital Health

The man at the centre of a legal battle over a mass strip search at the East Coast Forensic Hospital two years ago says the experience left him feeling as though he had been "raped."

Ralph Atkinson of Barrington Passage, N.S., is seeking to file a class action suit against the Capital District Health Authority.

He is speaking out for the first time in an exclusive interview with CBC News.

Atkinson alleges he and other patients were battered and assaulted on Oct. 16, 2012, when he says they were individually ordered to remove their clothes and undergo searches which included cavity checks and employees touching the males's testicles. He also claims their protection against unreasonable search, guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was violated.

"I felt raped. We all did," said the 48-year-old. "I've been sexually abused when I was younger, so it just draws flashbacks back from bad experiences and it just gives you that wrong feeling, like that gut wrong feeling that you know you've been violated." 

According to three strip search reports filed with the Supreme Court, the rehabilitation manager, Brenda Mate, wanted the searches because she had information "that drugs may be in rehab" and that patient safety was at risk. The Statement of Claim says no drugs were found.

Atkinson says Mate abused her power and did not have reasonable and probable grounds to search everyone simply because she believed drugs were present.

His lawyer, Mike Dull, compares the situation to a prison or jail.

"In regular prisons there is a wide concern about drugs being used in a jail. I think that people understand that. And yet prisoners are entitled to not be strip searched without an individual [being given] reasonable probable grounds," he said. 

"It's not enough for a warden of a prison to say, 'You know, we're going to round up all the prisoners today because there may be some drugs in the facility.'"

In a sworn affidavit filed with Supreme Court last week, Mate said there was growing concern among staff about the amount of substance abuse inside the facility.

The affidavit quotes a section of the Capital Health Mental Health Program Policy that says "Staff of ECFH should advise CWs [correctional workers] of any information they have relevant to that determination, however, whether to conduct a search remains in the discretion of the CW."

Mate said she left it up to Captain Todd Henwood of the Correctional Services Division to decide whether a mass strip search was warranted.

"Captain Henwood responded to say that based on the information I provided to him, he felt there was reasonable and probable grounds for the searches," the affidavit reads.

CBC requested under Freedom of Information legislation all strip search logs and reports conducted on the basis of reasonable and probable grounds for a two-year period from January 2012 to 2014. The request was turned down for privacy and personal and public safety reasons.

CBC also asked for the quarterly audits of strip searches, a requirement spelled out in the hospital's clinical policy and procedure. It was told no such documents could be found.

'I haven't seen any concerns'

Jim MacLean, the program leader at the hospital, declined to speak about the particulars of Atkinson's claims because of the court proceedings, but said there are no "quarterly audits" because strip searches are reviewed within 24 hours of occurring.

"The practice has been we review as each and every one is done because the numbers are low, so it's probably more timely [than a quarterly audit] the way we do it," said MacLean.

MacLean says he and the security captain at the hospital conduct the review but any findings are not written down.

"We would have a brief conversation about the contents of it and ask any questions. I would ask any questions if there was a concern," said MacLean.

He said issues can also be brought up at monthly meetings with hospital and Department of Justice administration.  "I haven't seen any concerns."

Mike Dull says the auditing system should be more transparent.

"I think that's important for the public to know who's doing the audit, what are the results of the audit and why," he said. "Those are fundamental issues that this case raises ... But it goes beyond that. If this is a systemic issue, it's important that the public knows that things are being done appropriately at that facility."

The Statement of Claim accuses Mate of a history of unlawful strip searches and says the hospital was negligent by continuing to give her the authority to order them.

CBC requested an interview with Mate or a statement from Capital Health, but was told neither would be commenting due to the legal proceedings.

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Capital Health did provide a breakdown of the number of strip searches conducted for reasonable and probable grounds. There were 39 in 2012 (the year Atkinson was searched), nine in 2013, one in 2014 (January).

The numbers do not include strips searches conducted when a patient is admitted to the hospital, returns from court, or found in possession of weapons, drugs or alcohol.

Atkinson, who has been strip searched in the past, says the incident in October 2012 was different.

"They didn't tell us anything about what they were looking for," he said. "We weren't respected."

A certification hearing is scheduled for December where a judge will decide if a class action suit can proceed. If it is certified, statements of defence would follow.

Atkinson says while some patients are looking for compensation, he wants Mate removed from her position and to hear the word "sorry."

"I want an apology. I want it public. I want it sincere."