Prison Psychiatry Chief Accuses California of Misleading Court on Mental Health Care
By Sam Stanton
The chief psychiatrist for California's prison system is accusing state officials of providing inaccurate and misleading data to a federal court and to lawyers for prison inmates fighting to improve psychiatric care inside state prisons, according to court documents.
Dr. Michael Golding compiled a "lengthy, detailed report" that inmate attorneys say contains "serious allegations" that data reported to the court overseeing a long-running case involving medical and mental health care inside California prisons "is inaccurate and has been presented in a materially misleading way," court documents say.
"Dr. Golding's claims are very serious and, if true, have far reaching implications affecting almost every aspect of this case," lawyers for the inmates said in documents filed in U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller's court in Sacramento.
Golding did not respond to a phone message or email from The Sacramento Bee. But in a hearing Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento, Mueller ordered state officials not to conduct any interviews with corrections officials who may have assisted Golding in compiling his report.
The judge also said she wanted to hear from Golding in testimony later this month before deciding how to proceed further over his allegations.
"If anything, Dr. Golding's report suggests to me my need to hear from him to assess the contents of that report," she said, adding that she wanted lawyers in the case to work on redacting inmate names and sensitive private information so the report can be made public.
Lawyers for the 30,000 prison inmates covered under the pending case say they discovered the existence of the 160-page secret report when lawyers for Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra called them last Thursday to reveal its existence.
Court papers say the call was made after Golding sent the report to the court-appointed receiver overseeing reforms inside California prisons.
Andrew Gibson, counsel to the governor's office, said in court that officials are taking Golding's accusations seriously, but that there may be others inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who disagree with Golding's findings.
Gibson also said the state has provisions in place to prevent any retaliatory actions against Golding or anyone who helped him with the report, which includes 60 exhibits and is currently filed under seal with the court.
Despite that, Golding attorney Daniel Willick told the judge that his client was worried about his career because of his actions.
"I must say that Dr. Golding and those who worked with him are quite concerned in that regard," said Willick, who took part in the hearing by telephone.
Michael Bien, the lead attorney for the inmates, said the allegations are "serious" and include claims by Golding that the frequency with which inmates are treated by psychiatrists and receive their medications are not being reported truthfully.
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For instance, the report indicates that the state says its psychiatrists have seen patients on time 96 percent of the time in some cases, where the actual frequency is allegedly only 20 to 30 percent of the time, Bien said.
The issue is critical to the inmates' attorneys, who were within days of signing a stipulation with the state in which they were going to agree to a reduction in the number of prison psychiatrists, an agreement that was being made because of the data the state had provided, Bien said.
Under that plan, the state's 405 psychiatrist positions would be reduced by 79 to a total of 326.
"We almost signed it," Bien said. "We came within a couple of days of signing the stipulation."
Now, that deal is off the table and a hearing is expected in coming weeks on the allegations raised by Golding.
"There's a fundamental trust issue here," Bien said, adding that the report indicates Golding visited state prisons with a team and determined that the data being issued by CDCR did not mesh with what he was seeing on the ground.
"He's alleging they played around with how they counted things and they played around with time frames," Bien said.
The urgency of the issue was on full display in court Wednesday, where the state's legal team included 15 people versus the three lawyers representing inmates.
Corrections officials are facing a deadline Thursday to fill 90 percent of their psychiatric positions, court documents say, and an evidentiary hearing had been scheduled to begin Monday over the use of "telepsychiatry" to treat inmates with doctors who are not physically present with their patients.
Bien said Golding was to be called as a witness in that hearing, and added that Golding's report included "disturbing" information that prison officials were conducting cell-front telepsychiatry sessions using laptops pointed through cell door windows or food ports, something that provides no privacy for inmates.
"He has done what many of us see in society," Bien said. "People who choose to do something that is heroic, to be a whistleblower to bring an important issue forward in our society. ... It's clear that he tried to bring these issues forward inside of CDCR."
Bien said he has not spoken with Golding and did not know why he chose to send his report outside of CDCR channels. But he noted that Golding did not go to the media as some whistleblowers do, instead choosing to stay "somewhat within the system."
"But we felt that he was at risk, which is why we immediately asked the AG and CDCR officials to confirm that he would not be retaliated against," Bien said.
CDCR officials declined to address Golding's accusations.
"We don't comment on matters pending before a court," spokesman Jeffrey Callison said in an email.
Bien noted that after years of legal battles against the corrections department he has seen many whistleblower complaints and that often the complaints are more about their own problems.
"This guy, it's not about him," Bien said. "This is someone who really cares about these issues."
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