Union: Employees forced to falsify suicide-watch documents

07/31/2014 4:18 PM

10/22/2014 2:18 PM

The union representing California state psychiatric technicians says that two of its members were forced to fake inmate suicide-monitoring records and were then disciplined when video recordings revealed the false documentation.

The California Association of Psychiatric Technicians alleges that managers at the prison medical facility in Stockton ordered those employees and others to document that they checked patients in the mental health crisis unit no less than five times per hour, even though other work kept the employees from adhering to that schedule.

When surveillance tapes reportedly showed that the suicide rounds weren’t done that frequently, one technician was rejected on probation. Another was suspended, union officials said.

“We’ve told the department, ‘You’re putting our people in positions where they can’t do the work,’” said union attorney Steve Bassoff. “They haven’t responded.”

Two inmates in the unit have attempted suicide in the last three months, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said. Both survived. She could not say if the attempts occurred when suicide monitoring had lapsed.

The affair has sparked a round of finger pointing between Corrections officials and California Correctional Health Care Services, the agency run by federally appointed receiver J. Clark Kelso to clean up California’s inmate medical system.

A spokeswoman for Health Care Services, which hires and disciplines prison nurses, psychiatric technicians and other medical staff, said the department is looking into the matter. But resolving it will also involve the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Joyce Hayhoe said, because it also hires some employees whose actions may have contributed to the alleged document falsifications.

Psychiatrists, for example, are hired by Corrections but can order patient checks by psychiatric technicians who are hired by Health Care Services. So Corrections could have to investigate and discipline a psychiatrist who ordered falsifying records, Hayhoe said. If a nurse supervisor gave orders to doctor records, then Health Care Services would have jurisdiction, since it hires those midlevel practitioners.

“We’re jointly going forward with (Corrections) in meetings next week to resolve any outstanding issues,” Hayhoe said.

But Simas said that Corrections has no involvement in the investigation or disciplining employees and doesn’t set policies that involve health care at the facility. Psychiatrists, she said, report to authorities hired by the receiver.

“This is all the federal receiver’s responsibility,” Simas said. “We have no control over this.”

The $839 million California Health Care Facility in Stockton closed to new admissions earlier this year amid staffing, supply and management problems. The 1.4 million-square-foot operation opened in June 2013, heralded as the largest prison medical facility in the nation and a key to ending years of federal court oversight of the prison system’s inmate medical care.

Union consultant and licensed psychiatric technician Ann Lyles said that she’s been hearing from employees who say the Stockton facility is a “hot mess” that is sorely understaffed. Two psychiatric technicians work each shift in the mental health crisis unit, she said, with one in a side room filling and distributing medications and another working the 98-bed floor.

The unit is about the size of a football field, Lyles said, and psych techs pass meal trays, help with showering and bathing on top of the legal mandate that they monitor each patient for suicidal behavior five times per hour.

“It’s a staffing problem,” Lyles said. “They’re buzzing around like mad.”

Bassoff said the probationary employee intends to challenge the department’s rejection. The other employee’s suspension was reversed, Bassoff said, early in the state disciplinary process.

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