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Union: California prison employees pressured to fake suicide-check records

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SACRAMENTO, California — California prison employees were pressured into falsifying suicide-watch records at the state's troubled new Stockton medical facility, endangering inmates and violating standards imposed in response to federal court orders, according to the union representing psychiatric technicians.

The union told The Associated Press that employees were instructed by supervisors to routinely sign log sheets certifying they had followed rules stipulating they check on inmates in the mental health crisis unit every 12 to 15 minutes when they had not done so because they were too busy with other work. Two workers were disciplined when video surveillance showed that they lied.

There were two suicide attempts in the unit, one in May and one in July, though both inmates survived, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email. She could not say if either attempt was during the time that the inmates were not being observed as often as required. She referred requests for comment to the federal court-appointed receiver who manages prison medical care in California.

Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the receiver, said officials from her office and the corrections department plan to meet Monday to discuss policies at the crisis unit. She said she can't discuss personnel issues, "but obviously any falsification isn't appropriate and won't be tolerated."

One worker won her job back earlier this month when the video recording backed up her story that she was busy performing other required tasks when she was supposed to be checking to ensure inmates were OK, said Steve Bassoff, attorney for the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians. The second employee is awaiting a hearing in September before the State Personnel Board.

"It illustrates the problem that we're talking about," Bassoff said of the video. "They had other duties they were performing, so they essentially couldn't be two places at once."

PHOTO: In this Thursday, July 24, 2014 photo, an inmate sits in a cell at the mental health unit at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Stockton Health Facility in Stockton, Calif. The California Association of Psychiatric Technicians union says that employees at the facility were instructed to routinely falsify suicide watch records, endangering inmates and violating standards imposed in response to federal court orders. The union claims inadequate staffing is prompting shortcuts that circumvent requirements meant to protect inmates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this Thursday, July 24, 2014 photo, an inmate sits in a cell at the mental health unit at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Stockton Health Facility in Stockton, Calif. The California Association of Psychiatric Technicians union says that employees at the facility were instructed to routinely falsify suicide watch records, endangering inmates and violating standards imposed in response to federal court orders. The union claims inadequate staffing is prompting shortcuts that circumvent requirements meant to protect inmates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The union says inadequate staffing is prompting shortcuts that circumvent requirements meant to protect inmates.

The $1 billion Stockton facility opened a year ago and has nearly 3,000 beds. It mainly treats sick and mentally ill inmates. Medical admissions were halted in January amid what federal receiver J. Clark Kelso described as serious, systemic problems with care. Admissions were resumed last week.

The mental health crisis unit serves inmates deemed most at risk of harming themselves or others. One of the psychiatric techs who works there is responsible for passing out medications, while a second is responsible for checking on the welfare of inmates, among other duties.

Union representative Ann Lyles said she has been complaining about staffing since May.

A consultant hired by Kelso recently recommended the prison add an additional psychiatric technician on each shift at the crisis unit.

Attorneys from the nonprofit Berkeley-based Prison Law Office toured the Stockton facility in July, but they were not informed of the issue with the logs, director Don Specter said. Filing false documents for a government agency is a crime that merits further investigation, he said.

"These welfare checks were put in there because of the extremely high suicide rate we have in California," Specter said. "It's a serious issue. It could mean the difference between life and death."

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PHOTO: In this Thursday, July 24, 2014 photo, an inmate sits in a cell at the mental health unit at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Stockton Health Facility in Stockton, Calif. The California Association of Psychiatric Technicians union says that employees at the facility were instructed to routinely falsify suicide watch records, endangering inmates and violating standards imposed in response to federal court orders. The union claims inadequate staffing is prompting shortcuts that circumvent requirements meant to protect inmates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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