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Judge wants investigator to probe whistleblower claims on prison psychiatric reports

Attorney discusses claim that state is misleading federal court on mental health care

Michael Bien, the lead attorney for 30,000 California inmates who need mental health care, discusses the accusation by the state's chief prison psychiatrist that state officials are providing misleading and inaccurate data on how it treats inmates.
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Michael Bien, the lead attorney for 30,000 California inmates who need mental health care, discusses the accusation by the state's chief prison psychiatrist that state officials are providing misleading and inaccurate data on how it treats inmates.

A federal judge in Sacramento said Monday that she intends to appoint an independent investigator to look into whether state corrections officials committed “fraud on the court” in reports they have submitted regarding the level of psychiatric care inside California’s prisons.

The extraordinary move by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller would give an investigator or law firm access to corrections records and witnesses to determine whether allegations leveled by the state’s chief prison psychiatrist have merit.

“I’ve identified areas where I think there’s a need to investigate whether there was fraud on the court,” Mueller told attorneys for the state and lawyers for inmates in a hearing Monday afternoon.

Mueller did not officially appoint an investigator during the hearing, but said she planned to file a written explanation of what she wants investigated and that lawyers on both sides can weigh in on the issue before she chooses who will conduct the probe.

The judge’s decision comes a month after Dr. Michael Golding leaked a 161-page report to federal prison overseers that he had compiled.

Golding has yet to speak publicly, but his report alleges the California’s prisons have “a broken system of care” and that state officials are providing inaccurate data to the federal court about the level of psychiatric care being provided to more than 30,000 inmates.

Golding’s report included serious allegations about the level of treatment some mentally ill inmates receive, and recounted the story of one inmate on suicide watch who was not given medication for four hours and eventually yanked out her left eye and swallowed it.

“I have documented that CDCR has prevented errors from being fixed, and worse, CDCR has not allowed anyone to know that there has been inaccurate reporting to the courts and to our leadership,” Golding wrote in his report, which Mueller released last week. “Such knowledge would allow problems to be identified so they can be fixed. A prison mental health system needs to ensure that patients see their psychiatrists and other mental health providers on schedule, on time and confidentially, in an office.

“CDCR is not doing that, as has been demonstrated in this report.”

CDCR has said it “strongly disagrees” with Golding’s allegations and that the department is providing appropriate care to inmates, and attorney Andrew Gibson, arguing on CDCR’s behalf, told the judge that such a probe is not needed because the state could present a report to her within three weeks debunking Golding’s allegations.

“We can say here and now, unequivocally, no fraud has taken place,” Gibson said, adding that state officials have been “nothing but transparent” and that Golding’s allegations are either a misunderstanding of data provided to the court or a disagreement over policies.

Lisa Ells, an attorney for the inmates, countered that Gibson’s rejection of Golding’s allegations “highly disturbing” given that state officials have not had access to Golding.

She argued that hiring a law firm or private investigator is the next logical step to determine the validity of Golding’s allegations that misleading and inaccurate information was given to the court to bolster its claims that psychiatric care in the prisons is improving.

Mueller said she had a list of categories she wants probed, and that she still is working out who would pay the investigator and whether the state or the inmate attorneys would be asked to contribute to the cost.

The judge has said she may call Golding to testify, and has ordered corrections officials not to retaliate against him or anyone who helped him compile his report. She has also told CDCR not to launch its own investigation into Golding’s claims until she decides how best to proceed.

The state’s prisons have been under federal oversight for years as lawyers for inmates have fought to improve medical and mental health care, and officials say more potential whistleblowers have come forward since Golding’s allegations first came to light.

One former prison psychiatrist told The Bee last month that she was sent from her $389,000-a-year job to work in the mailroom, then was fired after she reported problems with how psychiatric care was being provided.

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