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Court hears testimony on state of mental health care in California prisons

Atascadero State Hospital, shown here in a file photo, cares for some of CDCR's mentally ill 
Atascadero State Hospital, shown here in a file photo, cares for some of CDCR's mentally ill prisoners.
Reed Saxon/AP

Psychiatrists and other witnesses are testifying Wednesday that state hospital units charged with treating mentally ill prisoners are dangerously understaffed. 

The evidentiary hearing is part of a long-running case on prison mental healthcare before U.S. Eastern District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton.

In opening statements, Michael Bien, an attorney for inmates, told the judge that the Salinas Valley Psychiatric Program and a similar program at a facility in Vacaville lacked enough psychiatrists to provide timely and adequate treatment to the sickest inmates.  Bien asserted the lack of staff may have contributed to the recent deaths of two inmates at the Salinas facility. "Peoples' lives are at stake,"  he told Judge Karlton.

In November, 2012 an inmate hung himself in his cell after waiting for weeks to be admitted to the program. Another inmate, who suffered from a psychological condition that creates an unquenchable thirst, died in March of this year from drinking too much water. Dr. Pablo Stewart, an expert on psychiatric care, testified that a death from such a condition was "100 percent preventable." Staff should have monitored the patient and restricted his access to water told Karlton.

Debbie Vorous, an attorney for the state of California, argued that staff fluctuations are normal at a psychiatric facility, but said the new interim director at Salinas was "actively recruiting" to address the vacancies. 

Vorous said the court has never faulted the Department of State Hospitals, which runs the psychiatric programs, for inadequate care.

Dr. Joel Badeaux, a former state psychiatrist who worked at the Salinas Valley program, was also scheduled to testify at the hearing. Earlier this year, Badeaux implored hospital officials to address staff shortages he said were so great they threatened the welfare of patients and staff. 

Dissatisfied with the response, Badeaux asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in March to investigate conditions at the facility. 

Psychiatrists at Atascadero State Hospital also complained in an April, 2013 letter to state officials that vacancies at their treatment unit prevented them from giving inmates adequate care and created dangerous working conditions.