There is nothing progressive about California’s prisons

Despite California’s reputation for progressivism, the state prison system has long defied such a characterization.

Under federal court monitoring for years, California’s large, expensive system of incarceration is only seven years removed from a groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court order that found the state of the California prison system violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. And things don’t seem to have advanced as much as one might hope.

Dr. Michael Golding, the chief psychiatrist for the California prison system, recently submitted a damning report in federal court arguing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has concealed information necessary for improving mental health care in the California prison system.

“Vital information has been monopolized and its access restricted to a select group of mainly psychologists at headquarters,” Golding wrote. “This group has created a biased and inaccurately positive picture of what is actually a troubled system of care.”

Golding describes the system as one in which “a large majority of patients are not getting psychiatric care when scheduled or otherwise when they need it” and in which psychiatrists are “expected to search the prison yard looking for patients or [try] to communicate through a crack in the cell door.

“It might not be surprising to find high rates of hospitalization and suicide in such a poorly designed and run system,” Golding concludes.

Among the grisly details provided by Golding is the story of a “gravely disabled” woman who, after screaming for the better part of four hours, tore out her own eye and ate it after staff failed to respond appropriately to the woman’s mental health needs.

“The tragedy is that any competent psychiatric physician or general medical physician would have medicated the patient, and likely the patient’s eye would still be in her head had that happened,” Golding wrote.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller indicated her plans to seek an investigation into Golding’s claims. That’s the right call.

In a nation predicated on respect for individual rights, it is unacceptable for California’s prison system to continue operating in such a highly disturbing fashion.

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