Top doc blasts California prison health care

by Jillian Singh

San Francisco (CN) – The California department of prisons threatened, muzzled and defamed a top medical officer at San Quentin for blowing the whistle on its shoddy mental health care, the doctor claims in court.

Prisoners await treatment at the mental health unit opened in 2013 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. – Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP
Prisoners await treatment at the mental health unit opened in 2013 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. – Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP

Dr. Christopher S. Wadsworth, former chief psychiatrist and medical director of San Quentin State Prison, claims the state and 10 prison officials retaliated against him for a March 2014 memo on constitutionally inadequate conditions that continue today. The prison’s treatment of inmates also violates federal court orders, the doctor says.

“Plaintiff’s March 23, 2014, memorandum was based on objective facts and data, not hypothesized conjecture,” Wadsworth wrote in a searing, 144-page complaint.

“During the four-month period following submission of plaintiff’s memorandum, dozens of patients who required acute inpatient psychiatric care at San Quentin State Prison were, based on defendants’ NAMH [non-acute mental health] plan, restricted from or entirely deprived of access to the inpatient beds within the $136 million healthcare facility recently opened in 2010, and paid for by the California taxpayers.

“Instead, these patients, suffering from acute episodes of mental illness, were held in improper, temporary overflow cells where they would often wait for several days before a transportation team was available to deliver them to vacant beds within a proper treatment setting at distant institutions. These deprivations of timely access to inpatient care continue today.”

The California department of prisons threatened, muzzled and defamed a top medical officer at San Quentin for blowing the whistle on its shoddy mental health care, the doctor claims in court.

Wadsworth claims the retaliation was based in part on his professional opinion that disagreed with San Quentin’s then-Chief of Mental Health Eric Monthei’s proposed non-acute mental health plan. Wadsworth says he wrote the memorandum after reporting his concerns to his supervisors verbally and by email.

The memo called the medical plan dangerous to patients, an insufficient use of limited health resources, a danger to the public and prison staff, and not necessary in any way.

Moving several psychotic and suicidal patients to facilities hundreds of miles away required multiple escorts and wasted government money for travel, hotels, overtime and other expenses, Wadsworth says in the complaint.

He claims that the issues he raised were not only of public concern, but were questions fundamental for a chief psychiatrist to ask.

Mincing no words, Wadsworth’s complaint describes Monthei as “unfit and/or incompetent and that this unfitness and/or incompetence created a particular risk to others,” including Wadsworth.

He claims that Monthei, who is not a physician, “has had a lengthy track record of mistreating psychiatrists and other medical staff members, including psychologists working under him at SQSP,” and that “Monthei’s behavior has given rise to prior investigations, monetary settlements and numerous victims.”

He claims that the issues he raised were not only of public concern, but were questions fundamental for a chief psychiatrist to ask.

He claims that prison officials mischaracterized his legitimate concerns as “an effort to undermine the [Department’s analysis and recommendation] and bring opposition to the Department’s effort to comply with the [Coleman court’s] order.” (Brackets in complaint.)

The federal Coleman order, of 2010, ordered California to reduce the population of its adult prisons to 137.5 percent of their combined capacity. A prison spokesman told Courthouse News the state complied with the order, primarily by increasing capacity and leaving low-level felony offenders in county jails rather than sending them to state prisons.

Wadsworth claims his superiors threatened and harassed him for 14 months after he sent his memo, threatening to fire him, coercing him to resign from his chief psychiatrist position, and threatening to transfer him to a prison “in the middle of the desert” if he spoke up to anyone but them.

On April 16, 2014, Wadsworth wrote an email to defendant Eureka Daye, CEO for the Northern Region of defendant California Correctional Health Care Services. Under the heading “Confidential,” Wadsworth wrote: “Please, can you advise what steps I can take to reasonably prevent further isolation, retaliation, and (most concerning): undeserved, long-term impacts upon my career as a physician. … I feel that this situation is reaching an unwelcome, undeserved conclusion.” He attached a 51-page document corroborating his concerns.

He claims that Associate Warden John Curzon refused to sign an unfair document that described Wadsworth as disruptive, disrespectful and incompetent. Curzon then warned Wadsworth he needed to “watch his back,” according to the complaint.

He seeks punitive damages on 24 causes of action, including witness tampering and intimidation, tortious interference with contract, conspiracy to interfere with contract, slander, libel, negligence, breach of faith, labor code violations, constitutional violations, whistleblower violations, retaliation and Bane Act violations.

He seeks punitive damages on 24 causes of action.

Wadsworth is represented by Marvin Firestone, who had no comment.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not comment on pending litigation.

Jillian Singh, a reporter at Courthouse News Service, can be reached at @jilliansingh1. This story first appeared in Courthouse News Service.