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Calif. prison psychiatrist says whistleblowing cost her job

“It’s very disheartening, it’s very demoralizing,” Dr. Karuna Anand said

By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Before California’s top prison psychiatrist accused his colleagues this month of providing misleading information about the medical care inmates are getting, another high-ranking official already had spoken out.

Here’s what Dr. Karuna Anand says happened to her in 2017 after she blew the whistle on care so inadequate that it allegedly contributed to three inmate suicides:

Her computer access and password were disabled. Her state-issued cell phone was disconnected. Then the $389,000-a-year psychiatrist was assigned to work in a mail room, where she was told to search incoming inmate mail for pornographic photos.

Finally, she says, she was fired while she was off work on stress leave.

“It’s very disheartening, it’s very demoralizing,” Anand said this week in an exclusive interview with The Sacramento Bee. “I’ve had nightmares about the mail room where I have to see nude pictures.

“I’ve never seen nudity in my life until then.”

Anand’s allegations against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where she worked as chief of psychiatry at the agency’s California Health Care Facility in Stockton, are spelled out in a lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court earlier this year.

Soon, they may also be a focus of a federal judge’s investigation into what is going on inside the state’s program for providing psychiatric care to more than 30,000 inmates, a probe sparked by allegations from Dr. Michael Golding in a secret 160-page report he compiled and leaked to the federal receiver overseeing medical care in the prisons on Oct. 3.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller is expected to call Golding, the chief psychiatrist at CDCR headquarters, to testify at a December hearing on his allegations, and she has ordered corrections officials not to retaliate against him for coming forward.

But Anand, who believes the concerns she shared may be similar to Golding’s, had no promise of protection when she began to speak out.

Instead, she says she was fired by CDCR officials who wanted to silence her when she complained that they were providing inadequate care and inaccurate medical records required in the long-running Coleman v. Brown lawsuit that was brought to improve care for inmates with serious mental disorders.

She also claims she refused orders to have psychiatrists sign off on work being done with patients by psychologists who had yet to complete their training and receive their state licenses, something she said is illegal and contributed to patient deaths.

“Due to CDCR’s intentional and repeated violations, two patients committed suicide within a three-month period,” her lawsuit says. “Many CDCR mental health professionals resigned due to lack of patient and staff safety.”

Corrections officials said they cannot comment on a pending legal matter, but the claims in Anand’s lawsuit allege CDCR misled federal officials with records that inaccurately recorded how frequently inmate patients were being seen.

“This gave the appearance that patients were given daily, weekly and monthly follow-up appointments mandated by Coleman, when in fact some patients were seen only every 3-4 months,” her lawsuit says.

Anand said her concerns were ignored, and that unlicensed psychologists were treating patients with severe mental health challenges.

“Essentially, because of their limited knowledge, they were not evaluating the patients right,” Anand said in the interview. “So, they were discharging patients without picking up on the clinical symptoms that this could be because of mental deterioration.”

Anand contends that in one case an inmate was discharged from a bed in the mental health crisis unit and committed suicide 27 hours later.

“The clinician on the case was an unlicensed psychologist who was not allowed to work in the (mental health crisis bed unit) without prior approval or unsupervised,” Anand’s lawsuit says, adding that the psychologist was working “with minimal to no supervision.”

The level of psychiatric care being provided to inmates is a key factor in the ongoing Coleman case, and Anand’s attorney, Erik Roper, says he has been contacted by the prison inmates’ attorneys and that Anand would be willing to testify in the same hearing as Golding.

“Counsel for the inmates reached out to us because they wanted to know if Dr. Anand had information, evidence or knowledge similar to that being reported by Dr. Golding,” Roper said. “And, as articulated in her complaint, yes, she does.”

Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing inmates, said Anand could be called as a witness if a hearing on Golding’s allegations takes place.

“Obviously, if there is an evidentiary hearing where witnesses are called, other people like her have valuable information,” Bien said. “There are some other psychiatrists cited by Dr. Golding in his report who either quit or lost their jobs out of frustration with the system.

“So, I do think that there will be other witnesses that can back up, certainly, the general complaints that Dr. Golding is making about the marginalization of psychiatrists in the system.”

Golding has not spoken publicly since leaking the report and has retained an attorney, but Anand says Golding is familiar with her complaints because she raised them with him in 2015 and 2016.

Now, she says, she wonders if her concerns contributed to Golding’s decision to compile his report, and what will happen to him.

“I was wondering what was going to happen to Golding, I can only imagine,” she said.

Her attorney has little confidence in CDCR’s promises that there will be no retaliation for his actions.

“I think it’s laughable that CDCR says, ‘Oh, we have anti-retaliation policies,’” Roper said. “Come on.”

Mueller, who has not yet issued an order on whether Golding’s report will be made public, has said she wants “to get to the bottom” of Golding’s accusations that CDCR officials may have misled the court on the level and frequency of psychiatric care.

Anand says she would be happy to help.

“I will show her the bottom,” Anand said.