A psychologist who spent seven years working inside California’s correctional system filed a federal lawsuit against state prison officials Wednesday, alleging they routinely covered up how inmates died.
The suit, filed in federal court in Sacramento by Dr. Eric Reininga, 63, also alleges that he was fired last year after he leaked information to The Sacramento Bee about an inmate who died after being pepper sprayed in the face and left in his cell.
Joseph Damien Duran, 35, breathed through a tube in his throat. He died Sept. 7, 2013, at Mule Creek State Prison after being pepper sprayed because he would not remove his hands from the food port in his cell door. Guards refused to remove him from his cell and clean him up despite medical staff insisting he receive help, documents state.
“Joseph Duran didn’t need to die,” Reininga said in an interview Wednesday in the office of his Sacramento attorney, Anthony J. Poidmore. “He died a needless, horrific death … The fact is that staff at Mule Creek State Prison had plenty of chances to rescue him and, instead, he was left there to suffocate and die.”
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The lawsuit states that Reininga was the only corrections official to face discipline after Duran’s death. It names former California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard; Timothy Belavich, the deputy director in charge of mental health for inmates; and Gary Viegas, a corrections special agent who investigated the leak of documents to The Bee.
Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison said Wednesday the department had not been served with the suit and would not comment on pending litigation.
Revelations about Duran’s death created an immediate and far-reaching furor.
A federal judge in Sacramento ordered the reopening of hearings he had conducted months earlier about prison guards’ use of pepper spray and other types of force against mentally ill inmates, and the state eventually agreed to an overhaul of policies that severely limit the use of pepper spray.
Beard said he ordered a series of investigations into the Duran case. A high-ranking corrections official called Duran’s parents, Steven and Elaine Duran, to apologize.
The Durans did not learn of their son’s death in prison until four months after the incident, when a Sacramento Bee reporter investigating the matter called them for comment.
Instead, records show that after his death, prison officials called a phone number for the parents that had been disconnected years earlier and sent a telegram to an address where he lived as a boy.
No further efforts were made to locate the family, and Duran’s body was cremated 17 days after his death. His ashes were scattered at sea.
His parents subsequently filed a federal lawsuit over their son’s death. It is still pending.
“If I hadn’t come forward, I don’t believe his parents would still know what happened to him,” Reininga said. “They’d still be wondering where he is, what happened.
“He wasn’t treated with respect. He wasn’t treated as a human being.”
Reininga said he learned the details of Duran’s death as part of his job to review such cases and write reports on the deaths of mentally ill inmates. The reports go to a panel of federal court judges that oversees the welfare of mentally ill inmates because of conditions that were found unconstitutional.
Reininga said in his lawsuit that the department operated under a “code of silence” when it came to supplying information to the oversight panel, known as the “Coleman court.”
“CDCR has been in a state of siege with the Coleman court,” Reininga said. “They’re always fighting tooth and nail … We were all of us taught that the monitors were bad, that it’s us against them.”
Reininga added that he believed he had nowhere to turn to report his concerns over Duran’s death, which initially was classified as a suicide by the Amador County coroner, then as “accidental” by the corrections department.
He said that he had conducted about a dozen inmate death reviews in his time in the job and that all of them ended up being edited by higher-ups to place the department in a more favorable light.
“I couldn’t live with it,” Reininga said. “I couldn’t live with myself being part of the code of silence, and I’m furious about it. I lose my job, and yet they’re the ones who did the wrong thing.”
At the time of Duran’s death, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration was in a legal fight to get out from federal oversight of the prisons in a battle that was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Brown administration later lost its fight.
In addition, federal court hearings were about to resume in Sacramento to determine whether prison officials were using too much force – including the indiscriminate use of pepper spray – against mentally ill inmates.
Because of those hearings, the lawsuit claims, corrections officials employed a “coverup strategy of false, misleading and withheld information to keep the true facts from the Coleman monitors” and U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, who was holding the hearings examining use of force.
“As a result of The Bee’s story, the hearing was reopened; it gave us increased leverage, and there was a better outcome,” said Michael Bien, lead counsel for mentally ill inmates. “The Duran incident and when it happened exposed how disingenuous the prison officials’ promise during the hearing was that they were going to fix things themselves. (Reininga) did a courageous thing and an important public service.”
Duran’s death became public knowledge when The Bee published its first story about the case on Jan. 22, 2014. Reaction inside the corrections department was instantaneous, Reininga said.
“The day the report came out, I came to work and everyone was talking about it,” he said. “There was crime scene tape up across Tim Belavich’s hallway leading to his office.
“The governor’s office was on the phone and was very angry about this, and they tried to spin it. They were very angry that the story had come out and that everyone knew about it. They’d known the inmate was dead for months, and they wanted to hide that from the world.”
Corrections officials began investigating how the information had gotten out. After a year, Reininga’s lawsuit said, they confronted him with a stack of documents detailing his professional and personal life, as well as his phone records and those of his wife, television journalist Joyce Mitchell.
“It appears that CDCR did a lengthy, expensive investigation trying to find the leak,” he said in his interview with The Bee. “They had a team of people going through documents, going through computers to find the origin … They looked at everything; they looked at my Facebook page; they looked at my family’s Facebook page; they looked at my private telephone records … I was flabbergasted. I haven’t committed a crime. I did the right thing. I stood up for what was right, and they went through my phone records.”
Despite the cost to his family and the loss of his salary and health benefits, Reininga said he has no regrets, and that he believes his action may be the most important step he has taken.
“I knew the story needed to get out,” he said. “I knew it was wrong.”