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$300,000 a Year Not Enough to Convince Psychiatrists to Work in California Prisons

Despite an offer of a $300,000 annual salary plus government benefits, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has yet to convince psychiatrists to fill the vacancies in the prison system. About 40 percent of the state’s psychiatry jobs are empty, including those at the state’s prison and mental health institutions, according to data from 2018, the last year the numbers were available from CDCR 

Elizabeth Gransee, a spokesperson for California Correctional Healthcare Services, said the vacancy rate is 28 percent if accounting for contract psychiatrists, including those who treat via telepsychiatry video conferencing. “We are continuously improving recruitment of health care staff including mental health care providers,” she responded in an email to the Sacramento Bee. “[CDCR] continues to make substantial improvements in the delivery of health care and we will continue to ensure our population has access to the care they need.” 

Dr. Stuart Bussey disagrees. He is the president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, and says that in addition to pay increases, CDCR needs to improve the working conditions for staff psychiatrists. Right now, a psychiatrist’s treatment decisions can be overridden by prison workers with far less medical training, and the doctors face other frustrations and disruptions in the treatment of prisoners. 

CDCR has tried to fill the vacancies with contract psychiatrists, due to the lack of interest in full-time positions, but it costs the state much more to do that. According to the doctors’ union, contract psychiatrists cost the state about $36 million for the seven-month period that ended January 2019. While prison psychiatrists are better paid than their private-sector counterparts, according to CDCR, union president Bussey said that does not account for other benefits in the private sector and other government agencies, such as loan forgiveness and zero-interest home loans. 

“We’ve got a serious issue,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber at a budget hearing in March of 2020. “Whatever we’re doing is supposed to make life better for folks, not worse. These are folks who walking the street wouldn’t commit suicide, but they go into our place [the California prison system] and they do.” CDCR has also struggled with increasing rates of suicide among its prison guards.

California’s prison system has struggled for 30 years to provide adequate mental health care to prisoners. In 1990, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of prisoners with serious mental health issues. Since the 1995 trial in that case, CDCR has been under a judge’s supervision to make changes. In 2018, a whistleblower complaint by Dr. Michael Golding, the chief psychiatrist at CDCR headquarters, alleged that prison officials falsified data to cover up problems with psychiatric care in California’s prisons. 

“The environment that we’re putting folks in is really toxic for everyone,” Weber said at the budget hearing. Dr. Bussey said the union is working on a resolution with the state legislature. 


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