Prison Psychologist Speaks Out: Guards Covered Up Killing a Man and Suggested “Suicide”

Nick Cahill | Courthouse News Service

SACRAMENTO (CN) — A former prison psychologist claims California officials covered up the cause of an inmate’s death and fired him in retaliation for leaking documents to the media.

Eric Reininga claims in Federal Court that several officials in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation withheld facts about the 2013 death of a mentally ill inmate to persuade a coroner that the man committed suicide.

Reininga says the reports given to the county coroner did not include important information about Joseph Duran’s death: specifically, that prison guards pepper-sprayed Duran and ignored requests by medical staff that Duran needed emergency treatment.

Duran, 35, breathed through a tube in his throat and was under suicide watch before he died at Mule Creek State Prison.

Reininga, who edited the department’s federal mental health compliance reports at the time, say in his April 20 lawsuit that officers pepper-sprayed Duran for refusing to give up his food tray, and pepper spray entered his throat through the breathing tube.

“Immediately after Duran was pepper sprayed, staff observed Duran coughing up blood and attempting to alleviate pain in his stoma by removing the tracheostomy tube (rinsing it in the toilet) and placing his finger in the stoma and rubbing the area,” the complaint states.

Ignoring pleas from nursing staff and Duran’s psychiatrist to place him in a different cell, officers left Duran in the contaminated room even after he removed the breathing tube for a second time.

Duran was found unresponsive in his cell the next morning and the Amador County Sheriff-Coroner’s office classified the death as a suicide.

In the months after Duran’s death, Reininga says, the department continued to shroud vital details in its suicide report.

Rather than comply with the coverup, Reininga says, he decided to give information to the Sacramento Bee.

“It just bothered him to the point where his conscience couldn’t hold it anymore,” Duran’s attorney Anthony Poidmore told Courthouse News.

Poidmore said several of Reininga’s coworkers were aware of the coverup even before Reininga talked to the Sacramento Bee.

In the wake of the Bee articles, a federal judge reopened hearings on the department’s use of pepper spray and other types of force against mentally ill inmates.

The hearings prompted the department to update its pepper spray guidelines after a judge called California’s treatment of mentally ill inmates “horrific,” Reininga says in the complaint.

Duran’s parents say they learned of their son’s death when a Sacramento Bee reporter called them four months after the incident. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against multiple department employees in 2014.

Reininga became aware of the prison death from a coworker assigned to Duran’s Coleman report. Coleman reports are sent to federal judges to ensure that state prisons are complying with mental health treatment guidelines.

The Coleman reports have been required since 1995, when a federal judge ruled that the department routinely violated the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates.

When Reininga spoke to the press, he said, it “incensed” prison department officials, and even Gov. Jerry Brown called the department to “put a more positive spin on the situation.” At the time, California was petitioning to have federal oversight over its prisons removed.

“The department was incensed and vowed to uncover the source of this leak,” the complaint states. “The disclosures caused a great deal of embarrassment and unwanted scrutiny.”

Prison department investigators sought the source of the leak for more than a year before reining in Reininga.

He says his former employer went through his personal information and even retrieved cellphone records from his wife, Joyce Mitchell, a four-time Emmy Award winning television producer.

The department fired Reininga, and he says he was the only employee fired who was involved in Duran’s death.

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Named as defendants are three high-ranking prisons officials, including Secretary Jeffrey Beard, Deputy Director Timothy Belavich, and Gary Viegas, a member of the forensic analysis and support team.

Prisons department spokesman Jeffrey Callison declined comment.

Duran was serving a seven-year sentence for robbery at Mule Creek State Prison, near Ione, in Amador County.

Reininga seeks punitive damages for wrongful firing and civil rights violations.

Attorney Poidmore is with Clayeo C. Arnold PLC, in Sacramento.

Published by Courthouse News Service.