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California: Whistle-blowing Prison Employee Fired, Loses Lawsuit

by Ed Lyon

For over two decades, federal courts have been issuing orders, injunctions and sanctions in an effort to force California’s prison system to provide adequate treatment to mentally ill prisoners. That approach does not appear to be working.

Joseph Damien Duran, 35, died on September 7, 2013 at the Mule Creek State Prison. He was mentally ill and breathed through an opening in his throat. Despite his known mental health condition and breathing problems he was pepper sprayed by guards, resulting in his death. Claiming to be unable to locate his parents for notification, prison officials had him cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. The Amador County coroner reported Duran’s death as a suicide, though prison staff later listed it as “accidental.” [See: PLN, May 2016, p.24].

Former Mule Creek psychologist Eric Reininga leaked documents to bring Duran’s death to the public’s attention – and was fired for doing so. It was only after Reininga spoke with a Sacramento Bee reporter that Duran’s parents were contacted and told of their son’s death. The incident resulted in a federal court reopening a hearing on the mistreatment of mentally ill state prisoners, while Duran’s parents filed a wrongful death suit and ultimately received an apology and $750,000 in damages in 2016.

In the wake of Duran’s death, California’s prison system revised its policies concerning death notifications and use of force.

Meanwhile, Reininga was terminated.

On July 13, 2017, a federal judge dismissed a whistleblower suit filed by the former prison psychologist, stating he could not “find any cases that prohibit a government employer from firing an employee who allegedly violated Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) disclosure laws.” See: Reininga v. Belavich, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00811-TLN-DB.

“I couldn’t live with it,” Reininga stated. “I couldn’t live with myself being a part of the code of silence, and I’m furious about it. I lose my job, and yet they’re the ones who did the wrong thing.” 

Source: Sacramento Bee

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Related legal case

Reininga v. Belavich