California prison whistleblower says state tried to create phony data on inmate care

The whistleblower who accused California prison leaders last year of providing false and misleading data to a federal court on how the state handles inmate psychiatric care made his first public appearance Tuesday, standing behind his claims and saying corrections officials concocted “utter statistical rubbish” in some cases.

Dr. Michael Golding, the chief psychiatrist at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation headquarters, testified in Sacramento federal court Tuesday about what he said were repeated instances to gin up phony data the state needed to present to U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller to prove they were making progress on improving psychiatric care in the prisons.

Golding, who compiled and sent a scathing, 161-page report on psychiatric care in the prisons to the federally appointed receiver in October 2018, said there had never been anything secret about his views that corrections officials were trying to produce “extraordinarily misleading data” to come into compliance with court orders.

“I felt desperate and cornered and so I relayed it to the receiver ...” Golding said. “I told people that I was absolutely compiling this data and that I very much hoped ... they would come clean and tell people.”

State officials, who have been ordered by Mueller not to retaliate against Golding or a second whistleblower who came forward, have adamantly denied Golding’s claims, saying he based them on mistaken assumptions involving data.

A neutral expert Mueller ordered to investigate the claims concluded last May that the state did not intentionally mislead Mueller, but also found the state had used flawed decision-making and produced inaccurate data on how frequently prisoners receive psychiatric care.

As a result, Mueller ordered an evidentiary hearing that began Tuesday “to assist the court in understanding both how and why misleading information” ended up being presented.

Golding’s claims came just before the state and attorneys for the inmates were about to sign an agreement allowing for a significant reduction in psychiatric staffing at the prisons because of data showing marked improvements in care.

But once his report came out that agreement blew up, with attorneys for the inmates saying the trust they had built up with corrections officials over the years had been damaged.

Golding said the reported improvements the agreement had been based upon stemmed from urgent attempts inside CDCR to come into compliance with court orders, including one move where the requirement that inmates receive psychiatric treatment every 30 days was changed to 45 and then 60 days to show prisoners were getting the care they needed on time.

Once the change was made, the “dashboard” tracking inmate psychiatric visits showed a remarkable improvement, he said.

“The dashboard had turned green and psychiatrists from across the state were contacting us and laughing” about how easily the problem had been solved, Golding testified.

In May 2018, using the improved data, officials came up with a plan to reduce psychiatric staffing by 20 percent, he said, and asked him to approve of it without letting him read the plan.

“They asked me to sign an affidavit that I agreed with it and I told them unless I was able to read it I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “It was ridiculous.

“We told them it was entirely inappropriate.”

Golding also testified that data showing whether inmates made their scheduled appointments could be altered.

“Appointment can actually be disappeared,” he said.

The state has rejected Golding’s claims, saying he had ample opportunity to work inside the system to air his complaints, and former Deputy Director Katherine Tebrock testified later Tuesday that there was no effort to create phony data.

Instead, she said, the idea of shifting the requirement of psychiatric appointments from 30 days to 45 and later 60 days came from doctors at the prisons, not from officials in the governor’s office pressing for the state to get out from federal control of inmate health care.

“My understanding is the request came in from the field to ease demands on psychiatrists in the field,” she said. “That was the impetus for the change.

“There was never an intent to drive any kind of more favorable results in this case.”

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.