California's Toxic Prison Conditions
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a ruling by a panel of three federal judge holding that conditions in California's prisons are so horrendous they violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The panel had found that overcrowding was a primary cause of the abysmal conditions, and ordered California to reduce its prison population to no more than 137% of design capacity. The Supreme Court's opinion is here. From the opinion:
Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. 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.
If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.
The case involved two class actions, one brought by mentally ill prisoners and the other by medically ill prisoners. On the conditions:
The State’s prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.
The photo at the top of this post was included in the court's opinion:
Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for pro-longed periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets.
California's prison suicide rate is 80% higher than the national average.
A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such 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.’”
When the former head of Texas prisons says this, you know there's a problem:
He described conditions in California’s prisons as “appalling,” “inhumane,” and “unacceptable" and stated that “[i]n more than 35 years of prison work experience, I have never seen anything like it.”
The effect of the decision and why it is likely to reduce the prison population:
The order in this case does not necessarily require the State to release any prisoners. The State may comply by raising the design capacity of its prisons or by transferring prisoners to county facilities or facilities in other States. Because the order limits the prison population as a percentage of design capacity, it nonetheless has the “effect of reducing or limiting the prison population.”
The problem with overcrowding:
Crowding also creates unsafe and unsanitary living conditions that hamper effective delivery of medical and mental health care. A medical expert described living quarters in converted gymnasiums or dayrooms, where large numbers of prisoners may share just a few toilet sand showers, as “‘breeding grounds for disease.’
Cramped conditions promote unrest and violence, making it difficult for prison officials to monitor and control the prison population.
Public safety does not have to be affected by the ruling.
Expansion of good-time credits would allow the State to give early release to only those prisoners who pose the least risk of reoffending. Diverting low-risk offenders to community programs such as drug treatment,day reporting centers, and electronic monitoring would likewise lower the prison population without releasing violent convicts.12 The State now sends large numbers of persons to prison for violating a technical term or condition of their parole, and it could reduce the prison population by punishing technical parole violations through community-based programs.
The bottom line:
The medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment. This extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding. The relief ordered by the three-judge court is required by the Constitution and was authorized by Congress in the PLRA. The State shall implement the order without further delay.
Who dissented? The usual. Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts. Maybe they need to take a field trip and spend a weekend in one of these toxic prisons.
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