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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    My wish: (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by lentinel on Tue May 24, 2011 at 12:55:23 PM EST
    ".... Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts. Maybe they need to take a field trip and spend a weekend in one of these toxic prisons."

    I would particularly recommend that they experience a week or two in the tiny cages.

    Maybe they should stop trying to put Lindsay Lohan (none / 0) (#1)
    by honora on Tue May 24, 2011 at 06:22:50 AM EST
    in jail.  If that case is anything like the rest of California justice, the whole system is messed up.  

    There is no excuse, in America, to place prisoners in such conditions.

    Hypothetical question: (none / 0) (#2)
    by observed on Tue May 24, 2011 at 08:12:47 AM EST
    can the court decree that certain prisoners should be released in order to satisfy the judgment? For instance, could it order the release of all prisoners whose crime was possession of marijuana, up to a certain amount?

    No, a federal court could not (none / 0) (#7)
    by Peter G on Tue May 24, 2011 at 11:28:35 AM EST
    specify the details like that, at least not initially.  Under the U.S. Constitution, where the federal government (including its courts) have limited and specified powers, a state government can design its criminal "justice" "system" any way it chooses, so long as it does not violate the U.S. Constitution in doing so.  If someone sues them, as says the state has not kept within constitutional bounds, a court can examine that complaint. Once the federal court finds a violation, the state gets to try to design a remedy, with input from the complainants, of course (and perhaps informal suggestions from the judge), although the court gets to say whether the state's choice successfully remedies the constitutional violation. If the state persistently fails to propose and implement a solution, then the court could impose one, but I suspect any federal judge would try to respect the choices that the state legislature has made (such as its stupid marijuana laws), as much as possible.  Given how long the California situation has been going on, I think the judges here have more leeway than they would have had at the beginning of the case to impose a solution (such as the 137% cap), as long as it's based on evidence (probably expert consultants, in this case).  Anyway, it's not the Supreme Court that would design or impose a remedy; they only review what the lower federal court has already done.

    Thank you for a very informative (none / 0) (#8)
    by observed on Tue May 24, 2011 at 11:47:51 AM EST

    It's been a while, but as I recall, (none / 0) (#32)
    by observed on Wed May 25, 2011 at 09:48:51 AM EST
    courts imposed very specific desegregation plans, back in the day.

    Prison is inhumane... (none / 0) (#3)
    by kdog on Tue May 24, 2011 at 10:41:16 AM EST
    under the best of prison conditions...the descript of Cali prisons is downright criminal...if there was such a thing as equality under the law there should be indictments of Cali prison officials.

    Seriously, my brother... (none / 0) (#4)
    by Dadler on Tue May 24, 2011 at 10:51:06 AM EST
    ...we're so addicted to this prison paradigm, so quick to demonize and marginalize, it's a wonder we have the brains to tie our shoes.

    Must be alotta slip-ons out there.

    If 2 out of 10 inmates is a real danger, I'd be surprised.  What REMAINS a danger for real, on the other hand, is society's inability to grasp the fundamental power of generosity and love in the face of their counterparts.  Yes, a tiny segment of folks will be wretchedly violent and in need of segregation, but for the rest, come on, we've ALL been surprised hundreds of times in our lives at the remarkable decency of decently nourished souls.


    Add in for Profit Incarceration (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by ScottW714 on Tue May 24, 2011 at 12:43:38 PM EST
    And this problem isn't going anywhere.

    Just reading through comments on regular news sites and everyone is hang 'em or lock 'em up.

    What baffles me, yesterday the FBI said violent crime is down, again.  Overhaul it's trending downwards and has been for some time, yet prison populations are growing.  To me it means we are putting people in prisons that have no business there.  

    It's so fricken obvious we need something, a huge something for people that own society a debt, but don't need incarceration.  Something that can help all people, not just law breakers, anyone that needs a couple bucks or want to learn some skills for the future.


    Baffled? (none / 0) (#21)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue May 24, 2011 at 02:31:20 PM EST
    What baffles me, yesterday the FBI said violent crime is down, again.  Overhaul it's trending downwards and has been for some time, yet prison populations are growing.

    The more that violent criminals are in the slammer, the less violent crime they will be committing against civilians.  That's not baffling, its common sense.


    Good guesstimate... (none / 0) (#6)
    by kdog on Tue May 24, 2011 at 11:13:12 AM EST
    10-20% of the prison population gives us no choice...25% tops.  The rest can be dealt with in a more humane manner, or in the case of tyrannical drug laws, left alone alltogether.

    I'm done rooting for a new age of enlightment, we're too dim and fearful...I'm rooting for prison guards paychecks to bounce...the upside of bankruptcy.


    You would be low on your guess (none / 0) (#13)
    by jbindc on Tue May 24, 2011 at 12:56:00 PM EST
    At year end 2008, the number of offenders sentenced to state prison for a violent offense reached 715,400, up 95,400 violent offenders from 2000. This increase accounted for most (59.9%) of the growth in the number of sentenced state prisoners during this period, followed by public order offenders (33.6%), primarily those sentenced for a weapons offense. Prisoners sentenced for other offenses--habitual offender laws not classified in a substantive offense category--accounted for 8.6% of the growth of the size of the state prison population. Among the major offense categories, the number of sentenced drug offenders declined during this period. There were about 12,400 fewer drug offenders in state prison in 2008 than in 2000.

    Bureau of Justice Statistics

    What these statistics don't tell you is how many of the inmates sentenced are there because of what BJS calls "drug-related crimes" - those crimes committed a) while the inmate was on drugs, and/or b) because the inmate was trying to get money to buy drugs.

    For example (the latest data available):

    In the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 32% of state prisoners and 26% of federal prisoners said they had committed their current offense while under the influence of drugs. Among state prisoners, drug offenders (44%) and property offenders (39%) reported the highest incidence of drug use at the time of the offense. Among federal prisoners, drug offenders (32%) and violent offenders (24%) were the most likely to report drug use at the time of their crimes.


    Of inmates held in jail, only convicted offenders were asked if they had used drugs at the time of the offense. In 2002, 29% of convicted inmates reported they had used illegal drugs at the time of the offense, down from 35% in 1996.

    Marijuana and cocaine or crack were the most common drugs convicted inmates said they had used at the time of the offense --

    14% had used marijuana in 2002, down from 18% in 1996.

    11% had used cocaine or crack, down from 14% in 1996.

    In 2002, jail inmates convicted of robbery (56%), weapons violations (56%), burglary (55%), or motor vehicle theft (55%) were most likely to have reported to be using drugs at the time of the offense.

    What they also don't tell you is how many are in jail/prison on non-violent offenses, but who have a history of violence, or previous violent offenses.

    Now the federal system is a little different - 13% of inmates in the federal system are serving sentences for violent offenses, while a good chunk in federal prison are for drug and other non-violent offenses.

    So, it's much easier to talk about the arcane-ness (if that's a word) of the drug laws overall, especially when it comes to incarcerating people at the federal level, but when you bring in the facts that people commit other crimes to feed their drug habit or while on drugs, it's clearly not a black and white issue - "Get rid of all drug laws and empty out the jails and prisons."  


    More things the stats don't tell you... (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by kdog on Tue May 24, 2011 at 01:12:40 PM EST
    how many incarcerated for violent offenses are hopelessly violent, or who committed a violent crime in the heat of passion and is unlikely to reoofend.

    Or how many were innocent of the crime they were convicted of, or accepted a plea for a crime they did not commit for fear of a longer sentence by going to trial.

    One thing your stats tell us is that the majority of violent crimes are committed by the sober...I knew there was something suspect about tee-totallers:)


    Which isn't to say a person who commits (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by oculus on Tue May 24, 2011 at 01:38:42 PM EST
    a violent crime in the heat of passion might not do so again.

    To add to your comment, oculus (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by christinep on Tue May 24, 2011 at 03:22:30 PM EST
    ...with hesitancy on my part in view of the venue...there might also be a role for deterrence in society's response to those convicted of crimes.  Putting it more directly: Societies base incarceration for committing acts designated as crimes on a combination of punishment (read: consequences) & rehabilitation. While people may differ on what the combination should be and in what circumstances, both components are recognized as a legitimate societal response. Other comments in this train (not yours) seem to focus fully & only on what appears to be the rehab aspects.

    I support effective rehabilitation. (5.00 / 1) (#27)
    by oculus on Tue May 24, 2011 at 03:34:11 PM EST
    But not sure what is effective re persons convicted of committing violent crime.  

    True... (none / 0) (#17)
    by kdog on Tue May 24, 2011 at 01:45:08 PM EST
    but less likely than a premeditated violent criminal...heat of passion violence can be addressed without cages, say education in anger management.

    How many (none / 0) (#18)
    by jbindc on Tue May 24, 2011 at 02:00:43 PM EST
    do you think, "heat of passion" violent offenders are in prison, as a total of the violent offender population?  Or what do you define as "heat of passion"?  The classic example is a man coming home to find his wife in bed with a lover, whereby man shoots/kills wife and/or lover.

    Other things, such as taking a gun into a 7-11, but maybe not consciously intending to use it while you rob it, but you do end up using it and hurting or killing someone, are, by definition, not "heat of the moment."


    Although I recall reading studies re (none / 0) (#19)
    by oculus on Tue May 24, 2011 at 02:09:32 PM EST
    anger mgt. classes people were ordered to attend re domestic violence.  Talking with others about the same types of feelings just made them more angry.  The classes were not effective.  

    huh? (none / 0) (#22)
    by CST on Tue May 24, 2011 at 03:19:54 PM EST
    "but when you bring in the facts that people commit other crimes to feed their drug habit or while on drugs, it's clearly not a black and white issue - "Get rid of all drug laws and empty out the jails and prisons."

    Emphasis mine.  I think the assumption is that if it's legal it won't be necessary to commit a crime to feed that habit (prices go down - among other things).

    As to those who commit crimes while on drugs, a lot of those crimes are drug crimes (duh).  As per the other crimes - who is to say whether or not the drug use had any influence on the crime the person was committing.  Maybe it did, maybe it didn't.  But just because someone happened to be high when they saw their wife with a lover and shot them both, doesn't mean they did that because they were high.

    In any event, I am not surprised to see a correlation between drug use and crime.  But I do have to wonder how much of that is due to the fact that those who use/sell drugs are relegated to the shady underbelly of society, and therefore are less influenced by societal "norms".


    Law & Order - LA (none / 0) (#5)
    by ScottW714 on Tue May 24, 2011 at 11:04:34 AM EST
    They showed and gave a run down of the boxes above.  According to the line, those are used for mentally disabled patients to attend mandatory group theory.  The also have Lexan barriers so they don't spit/urinate on each other.  They were arranged, about 8 of them in a circle, and the facilitator sat in the middle.  Whether that is the case is hard to know, but it's certainly doesn't seem unreasonable.

    The point of the show was to show how California, and I suspect most states, treat the mentally challenged patients because one can be mentally disabled, yet if they understand the proceedings and can participate, they are legally sane.

    Which is a huge problem because often people who aren't mentally sound, don't want to be viewed in as inferior, and they system is more than happy to treat them as equals and accused are more than happy to play along.  Not realizing that they will never get the attention they need and more than likely will be preyed upon by other inmates.

    But then again, I can't imagine mental health facilities are any better.

    I have a real issues with the paragraph (none / 0) (#9)
    by fuzzyone on Tue May 24, 2011 at 12:29:41 PM EST
    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."

    Like most of the coverage of this issue I have seen it ignores another way to reduce the prison population which is to reform California's draconian three strikes laws and hair trigger for imprisoning parolees for the most minor technical violations like missing a single visit.  The prisons are filled with people in for minor parole violations or doing life for trivial strikes.

    Materials from the case are online (none / 0) (#10)
    by fuzzyone on Tue May 24, 2011 at 12:41:55 PM EST
    courtesy of one of the firms that represented the prisoners.  They have some of the photos and videos as well as documents.  I have not looked at all of it but it is here if you are interested.

    Or how many (none / 0) (#16)
    by NYShooter on Tue May 24, 2011 at 01:43:07 PM EST
    were patients in State Departments of Mental Hygiene (or should have been) before our "compassionate" politicians shut down those institutions in order to "mainstream" these poor folks into the "community" (read gutters)

    In other words, how many inmates belong in hospitals instead of prisons?

    Any word from Calif's Gov. Brown (none / 0) (#26)
    by christinep on Tue May 24, 2011 at 03:33:54 PM EST
    The case gives him definite leverage with the state legislature in upcoming budget formulations. Apart from the obvious potential for transfers, good time releases, refining the parole situation, and--just maybe--toning down the approach to "habitual criminal" definition, the budget $$$ for prisons should get a lot of coverage, pressure to increase funding, etc.

    Justice Kennedy with four other colleagues did a very good deed for society yesterday.

    CCPOA will doubtless lobby for (none / 0) (#28)
    by oculus on Tue May 24, 2011 at 03:35:41 PM EST
    more bed space, etc.  

    speaking of black and white (none / 0) (#30)
    by CST on Tue May 24, 2011 at 03:40:12 PM EST
    where did I say that exactly?

    I didn't, but nice try.

    jbinc is over limit (none / 0) (#31)
    by Jeralyn on Tue May 24, 2011 at 09:18:21 PM EST
    excess comments over four in this thread have been deleted. She's been limited as a chatterer on crime threads.

    Here's to the Lawyers at the Prison Law Office (none / 0) (#33)
    by kaleidescope on Wed May 25, 2011 at 08:08:17 PM EST
    And especially to Rebekah Evenson, who left a very well paying job with a good private firm to follow the thread of social justice.

    Hats off!