Prison psychologist alleges California corrections officials hid details of inmate death
A federal judge in Sacramento ordered the state corrections department Friday not to destroy any documents used by the state’s chief prison psychologist to produce a secret report in which he alleged prison officials were misleading the court, and lawyers for inmates, over how much psychiatric treatment they are receiving.
U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller also ordered an Oct. 22 hearing to produce testimony from Dr. Michael Golding, who produced a 160-page report alleging wrongdoing by the state and then turned it over to the federally appointed receiver overseeing medical care in the state’s prisons.
Mueller’s order directs defendants in the case to “preserve all evidence relevant to Dr. Golding’s report and the issues raised by that report and prevent or cease any ongoing destruction of related documents or information.”
There has been no evidence presented to indicate any documents are being destroyed, and lawyers for the state emphasized in a hearing Wednesday that no retaliatory actions are being taken against Golding and anyone who helped him produce the report.
Copies of the document and 60 exhibits have since been turned over to lawyers for the inmates who are fighting to improve their access to psychiatric care.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has declined comment on the matter, but Michael Bien, the lead lawyer in the fight to get inmates better access to psychiatric care, said the order shows Mueller is taking the allegations “very seriously.”
“This is an investigation about whether or not CDCR made misrepresentations to the federal court,” Bien said. “That is very serious, and this judge is taking it very seriously.”
The precise contents of the report remain secret, but Mueller indicated during the hearing Wednesday that she wants a version that can be made public and ordered lawyers from both sides to produce a redacted copy by Monday afternoon or to provide an explanation for why they cannot.
Attorneys for the inmates say the report contains “serious allegations” that corrections officials provided data to the court and the inmates’ lawyers that “is inaccurate and has been presented in a materially misleading way.”
Bien said the report from Golding led him to scuttle a proposed agreement with state officials in which he was going to reduce the number of psychiatric positions in the prisons.
Neither Golding nor his attorney have responded to requests for comment since Golding turned the report over to the receiver last week, but his attorney, Daniel Willick, said during Wednesday’s hearing that he was “quite concerned” about the possibility of retaliation against Golding and others, and Bien agreed.
Mueller’s order specifically states that CDCR cannot retaliate against Golding or others who may have helped him.
Golding’s case as a whistleblower differs somewhat from others, in that he did not go to the media with his report, and there are indications that he initially tried to raise his concerns inside corrections before making his decision to hand the report over to the receiver’s office.
The last corrections official to come forward as whistleblower became the target of an intense internal affairs investigation and was eventually fired.
Dr. Eric Reininga, a psychologist who worked in the corrections department for seven years, said he was fired in 2015 after he was discovered as the source of documents provided to The Sacramento Bee outlining how a mentally ill inmate at Mule Creek State Prison died after being pepper sprayed in the face.
Joseph Damien Duran, 35, breathed through a tube in his throat but was pepper sprayed in the face for refusing to remove his hands from the cell door’s food port. He was then left alone in his cell despite medical staff insisting he be removed and cleaned up, and he was later found dead Sept. 7, 2013, the confidential documents say.
Duran’s death initially was classified as a “suicide,” and his body was cremated 17 days later and the ashes dumped at sea. His parents did not learn of his death until four months later, when they were contacted by The Bee after Reininga had turned over the documents.
His parents sued and received a $750,000 settlement, and corrections official said the case spawned a number of policy improvements and internal investigations.
Reininga has said corrections officials routinely covered up how inmates died and that a “code of silence” existed with the department. He also said he ended up being the only corrections official disciplined in the case.