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California Prisons: Cruel and Unusual

2011 June 8

On May 23rd the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case of Brown v. Plata, deciding that the rampant over-crowding in California’s prison system is illegal and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, violating the 8th Amendment.   The Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 33,000 prisoners within the next two years.  Brown v. Plata arose out of two class-action lawsuits, one started in 1990 by seriously mentally ill prisoners (Coleman v. Brown) and the other in 2001 by prisoners with serious medical conditions (Plata v. Brown).  The Court found the chronic and serious overcrowding of California’s prisons resulted in dangerous conditions for inmates and prison workers, inhumane treatment of prisoners, and horrifically inadequate medical and mental health care.  The Court’s decision sets a new precedent in terms of its authority, and brings renewed attention to the over-looked but critical issue of prison reform.

California’s prison system has been in crisis for decades now, due to over-crowding (the state’s prisons have been operating at about 200% design capacity for at least 11 years) and a lack of funding.  The case of Brown v. Plata began almost two decades ago, so some background on the case and it evolution is necessary in order to fully grasp the implications of the Court’s ruling.  Brown v. Plata began with the federal class action lawsuit Coleman v. Brown brought against California by mentally ill prisoners in 1990.  A “Special Master” was appointed to oversee the remedial efforts, and reported 12 years later that “the state of mental health care in California’s prisons was deteriorating due to increased overcrowding.”

Then, Plata v. Brown was filed in 2001, on the basis that the vastly inadequate medical care in the prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment.  In that case, the State conceded that “deficiencies in prison medical care violated prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights and stipulated to a remedial injunction.” But in 2005, the State still had not complied with the injunction, and so a Receiver was appointed by the court to oversee remedial efforts.  Despite this, three years later “the Receiver described continuing deficiencies caused by overcrowding.”  Given this conclusion, the plaintiffs in Coleman and Plata felt that “the unconstitutional medical and mental health care could not be achieved without reducing overcrowding”.  The plaintiffs petitioned the District Court to convene a three-judge court through the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) in an effort to get the court to mandate a reduction of the prison population.  In both cases the judges granted the request, and the cases were consolidated  into the case that ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court as Brown v. Plata.

The PLRA panel of three judges concluded that overpopulation in the prisons did result in an violation of prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights and ordered California to reduce its prison population to “137.5% of design capacity within two years.”  The judges found that if prison capacity could not be “increased through new construction…the State [is required] to formulate a compliance plan and submit it for court approval.”  The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the three judges on the PLRA, finding that the “court-mandated population limit is necessary to remedy the violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights.”

No one wants to support funding for new prisons, as they are costly to build and maintain, and any spending on the criminal population is never popular with voters (except when the job opportunities are welcome).  Many people see spending on prisons and prison programs as a waste of tax dollars, and in many ways prisoners are a neglected constituency.  In most states, if you are a felon, on parole, or on probation, you have no voting rights.  In some states, if you are a felon, your voting rights are permanently revoked.  This removal or permanent revocation of voting rights combined with society’s aversion to those who commit crimes means that politicians – and often society in general – cares little about the welfare of convicts. But because prisoners have the legal status of wards of the state, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure their welfare, a stance Justice Kennedy affirmed in his majority opinion

Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care.  A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’ ” … Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care.  A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.

The abuses detailed in the ruling of this case are truly upsetting and unconscionable.  The PLRA panel and the Supreme Court was presented with overwhelming evidence of the abuses and suffering endured by inmates due to overcrowding and the consequent inadequate medical and mental health care.  The following is some of the evidence cited in the ruling of the catastrophic failure of the California prison system to provide even the most basic care:

  • “A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in… a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.  Prison officials explained they had ‘no place to put him.’”
  • “In 2006, the suicide rate in California’s prisons was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations; and a court-appointed Special Master found that 72.1% of the suicides involved ‘some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”
  • “A correctional officer testified that, in one prison, up to 50 sick inmates may be held together in a 12-by-20 foot cage for up to five hours awaiting treatment.”
  • “The number of staff is inadequate, and prisoners face significant delays in access to care.  A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after an 5-week delay in referral to a specialist; a prisoner with ‘constant and extreme’ chest pain died after an 8-hour delay in evaluation by a doctor; and a prisoner died of testicular cancer after a ‘failure of MDs to work up for cancer a young man with 17 months of testicular pain.’”

California’s prisons are so overcrowded that they are in a constant state of crisis, which means there is little time or energy left to address prisoners’ basic needs, like adequate health care.  Crowding also creates “unsafe and unsanitary conditions” that impede the effectiveness and delivery of any health care that inmates do receive.  The over-population of prisons “promotes unrest and violence” which can increase the need for medical services, and can exacerbate the condition of prisoners “with latent mental illnesses to worsen or develop overt symptoms.”  These factors contribute to the failure to provide basic medical care, and feed upon each other, creating a vicious cycle with increased violence requiring further reliance on crisis measures – such a lockdowns – which then “further impede the effective delivery of care.”

Two other factors have also contributed to California’s overflowing prisons: the “three strikes law” and the requirement of the Governor to sign off on all paroles for those sentenced to life imprisonment.  The “three strikes law” requires mandatory and extended periods of incarceration for those convicted of a serious criminal offense (usually felonies) on three or more separate occasions.  This has an effect of increasing the number of inmates as well as the length of their imprisonment.  Then there is the California law which requires the Governor to sign off on all paroles for those sentenced to life.  This has the de facto effect of increasing the prison population because the Governor’s office is a political body, and no Governor wants to have his or her signature on parole papers for a lifer who once out, commits more crimes.  With no political cover, it is very unlikely that anyone convicted to life imprisonment will ever be released.  These laws – in combination with California’s budget crisis – have resulted in vastly over-crowded prisons: California’s 33 prisons have a capacity of 80,000 and as of 2009 they held almost twice that.

Given the budget constraints California now faces, it is unlikely that new prisons will be built to expand capacity, which leaves essentially leaves the state with two options: release 46,000 prisoners or transfer them to out-of-state prisons or county jails.  The options other than release are unlikely, because the state has to pay to send inmates to out-of-state prisons, and county jails are smaller and ill-equipped to handle an influx prisoners.  Justice Kennedy in his majority opinion acknowledges this, and the seriousness of the burden being placed upon California in the Court making its ruling:

The order leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials.  But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfer, or other means – or modification of the order upon a further showing by the State – the State will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.  High recidivism rates must serve as a warning that mistaken or premature release of even one prisoner can cause injury and harm.  The release of prisoners in large numbers – assuming the State finds now other way to comply with the order – is a matter of undoubted, grave concern.

The possibility of thousands of prison inmates being prematurely released is serious and indeed frightening, but ordering the release of prisoners is very much a last-resort effort to remedy the inhumane treatment of inmates; the possible consequences were not taken lightly by the Court in making its ruling.

The Court’s ruling in this case also has serious legal and constitutional ramifications, as never before has the Court so dramatically intervened in the operations of a states’ prison system.  It is for this reason that the more conservative members of the Court (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito) dissented.  Chief Justice Robert is a more moderate legal conservative, but Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito seem to adhere to legal philosophy of Strict Constructionism.  Strict Constructionism is the belief that laws should be interpreted literally, and applied only as they were written, and emphasizes “judicial restraint and fidelity to the original meaning (or originally intended meaning) of constitutions and laws”.  For example, if one adheres to the philosophy of Strict Constructionism there is no constitutional protection of privacy, as such protection is not explicitly stated in the Constitution.

Because Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito believe in strongly Strict Constructionism, they believe in circumscribing the power of the Court to dramatically intervene in State and Federal government operations and laws, and it is this belief than underpins their dissenting opinions.  Justice Alito, in his dissent (which he was joined in by Chief Justice Roberts) stated that it is not within the scope of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional powers to intervene in the running of state penal systems, because “Decisions regarding state prisons have profound public safety and financial implications, and the States are generally free to make these decisions as they choose.”  Justice Alito argued that this case should have stayed in the jurisdiction of PLRA, even though he believes the PLRA Court “exceeded its authority under the Constitution and the PLRA” by ordering the State to reduce its prison population because it did not find that “the current population level violates the Constitution.”  Justice Alito also attacks the case on the grounds that state of California’s prison system is not serious enough to merit the ruling of violating the Eighth Amendment, because the

The Eighth Amendment imposes an important–but limited–restraint on state authority in this field. The Eighth Amendment prohibits prison officials from depriving inmates of ‘the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.’… Federal courts have the responsibility to ensure that this constitutional standard is met, but undesirable prison conditions that do not violate the Constitution are beyond the federal courts’ reach.

But given the evidence presented to both the PLRA Court and the Supreme Court, I cannot see how the overcrowding of California’s prisons doed not violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.  Overcrowding may not have been the direct cause of the abuses endured by California’s prison population, but overcrowding has caused a chain reaction in the failure of the prison system to deliver “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities”.  I think most people can agree this required minimum includes timely access to health care, not being packed into 12” x 20” cages with fifty inmates, or minimal sanitation requirements.  Not to mention the difficulty (and danger) faced by those who run the prisons in managing inmate populations in an effective, safe way.  Perhaps the Court did over-step its authority in ordering the release of up to 46,000 prisoners.  But given that the California prison system has been in crisis for over two decades, the orders of the PLRA Court have been ignored or poorly implemented, and the egregious conditions endured by California’s prison population, it seems the Court had little choice – in the name of humanity – but to order a reduction in California’s prison population.

*     *     *

The greater issue brought up by this case is that of prison reform.  It has been often said that the progress of a society can be judged by the status of women in that society, because historically, women have been afforded fewer rights and equality than men.  I think the same can be said of a society’s treatment of prisoners.  Prisoners, like women, have been (and still are) marginalized by society, but for different reasons.  Those convicted of crimes are marginalized in order to punish them, to shame them, in order to discourage them from committing crimes again.  But having been convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail does not diminish the humanity or the rights of a prisoner to be treated humanely, even if some have committed terrible acts of violence.  Overcrowding and the failure of the state of California to provide basic medical and mental health services is cruel and unusual punishment, as it denies prisoners their humanity by treating them like caged animals.  Subjecting those who commit crimes to violence and harsh treatment may be satisfying for crime victims and for society, but it is not effective in preventing crime or recidivism, and in the end makes the public less safe.

This marginalization of prison inmates can be effective in discouraging crime, but it can also be extremely damaging.  There are people in jail who have committed terrible crimes, and some of those people have no remorse for their actions.  But isolating prisoners from society gives them little incentive to re-enter society as productive members, especially if they do not have the means to rehabilitate themselves; to gain education and skills that allow them to hold a job and support themselves.  Many who compose the prison population in this country end up in jail because of a lack of education and/or opportunity.  According to the United States Department of Justice, “the typical offender is undereducated, unemployed, and living in poverty before incarceration.”  Additionally, “19% of adult inmates are illiterate, and up to 60% are functionally illiterate.”

But providing services and programs to prisoners is a political issue, and often elected officials who support educational and vocational programs for inmates are tarred with being “soft on crime”, a label that can kill a politicians’ career.  But as states slash budgets, one of the first things to go are “extra” programs for prisoners, like educational and vocational opportunities and recreation.  These programs are portrayed by those who oppose them as coddling hardened criminals, and that by spending precious budget dollars on such a hopeless population, you are taking money from public school systems, from infrastructure improvement, from whatever program is deemed more worthy than providing opportunities for criminals.

But this position is wrong.  There have been many studies authored by the Federal government on the effectiveness of educational programs and attainment in drastically lowering recidivism rates.  And lower recidivism rates means a lower prison population, which results in dramatic costs savings.   “The Three State Recidivism Study” conducted in 1997 by the Correctional Education Association for the U.S. Department of Education found – using education participation as the major variable – that “simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29%.  Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.”  Another study, entitled “Review of Various Outcome Studies Relating to Prison Education to Reduced Recidivism” was published by the U.S. Department of Education found “a consistent positive relationship between participation, educational attainment and lowered rates of recidivism.”

If we really want to reduce prison populations and reduce crime and recidivism, building more jails is not the answer.  Neither is shipping prisoners to county jails or out of state prisons.  If we want long term, effective solutions we must invest in the prison population and provide them with alternatives to entrenched poverty and a life of crime.  The overcrowding and subsequent violation of prisoner’s rights in California is the result of a failure of society to provide equal opportunity to its citizens.  Prison reform must be taken seriously, as the human and financial cost of incarceration is enormous.  The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world: more than 5.6 million Americans are or have been incarcerated, that translates to 1 in 37 adults in U.S.  People are not born criminals, but people commit crimes for many reasons, and it isn’t as simple as because they are inherently “bad”.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. JenniferP permalink
    June 13, 2011

    One of the main reasons for California’s prison population over crowding is the 3-strike law, that has yet to be reformed. There are 100’s of people sitting in prison for 25 years for a 3rd strike that was a misdemeanor – if this law was reformed the prisoners that can be released would not necessarily be violent people. Each and every case should be looked at individually, those prisoners should not be over looked because of a bad law.

    • Jacqueline Moss permalink
      June 13, 2011

      I make that argument in the article. Another contributing factor is mandatory minimum laws, which takes away judicial discretion in sentencing.

  2. Informed Citizen permalink
    June 13, 2012

    I strongly feel that the California Prison System has become a failing system at every level. As average Americans, I think we should care about the treatment of inmates in these prisons because it seems that the current trend in putting people away for petty crimes is at its all time high. These California prisons are being bought out by privately owned businesses in exchange for inmates. With this being said, we should care because we might find ourselves in the same situation as these prisoners. If one thinks that slavery has ended in the United States, it has not. In order for prisons to make profit, they have to maintain ninety percent full capacity in order to maintain agreement with these privately owned businesses.

    In addition, the quality of life for an inmate is completely disregarded in prison. Inmates are not only stripped of their identity and freedom, but also the human right to live a healthy life. For instance, in 2010 a recent report suggested that the U.S. federal prison industry that recycled computers and other electronics violated health, safety and environmental laws, according to a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General. Even though prisoners might be serving crime for a petty or severe crime, they are simply humans that deserve to be treated humanely.

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