November 29, 2010

Prison overcrowding: Chickens coming home to roost

U.S. Supreme Court to hear critical California case

When is the last time you heard of prisoners and prison guards teaming up in a legal case?

They are united on the same side in a case set to be argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The case concerns prison overcrowding in California, where about 164,00 prisoners are crowded into facilities designed to hold less than half that number. The state is fighting a federal district court that the massive population must be cut by 40,000 to allow for minimally adequate mental health and medical treatment.

“The case is being widely watched across the U.S, as other states grapple with California-style problems: tough sentencing laws that filled up prisons even as the economy battered state budgets,” write Joanna Chung and Bobby White in today’s Wall Street Journal. Eighteen states have filed briefs backing California in the case of Schwarzenegger vs. Plata, arguing that releasing prisoners would threaten public safety.

The issue of inadequate mental care in California prisons has been in the courts since 1991, when Ralph Coleman filed a lawsuit that was eventually merged with prisoner Marciano Plata’s similar lawsuit of 2001. The district court appointed an independent expert to oversee prison health care. That expert, law professor Clark Kelso, believes the court-ordered reductions in the prisoner population are needed to achieve "sustainable constitutional health care" in the face of continued prison construction.

As Chung and White report:
The rare alliance of California's powerful prison guard union and the inmates illustrates the severity of the situation, legal experts say. "It should not be a surprise to anyone that the chickens have come home to roost after a series of disastrous policy choices that has landed California in this position," says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which has filed a brief on behalf of the inmates….

Tough sentencing laws enacted by the state during the 1990s, including the three-strikes-and-you're-out law, as well as a parole crackdown that's returned violators to return to prison even for minor infractions, fueled the dramatic rise of California's prison population….

When Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. first was governor in the 1970s, California's prisons housed more than 20,000 inmates. When Mr. Brown, who won back his old job in this month's elections, returns to office in January, he will oversee more than 160,000….

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the 30,000-strong prison guard union, says the state's current strategy of building more prisons at home and shipping overflow inmates to out-of-state private penitentiaries won't solve the long term trend. Ryan Sherman, an association spokesman, says: "You can't build your way out of this.... We need real reform, not a numbers game."

Mr. Sherman wants the state to invest in more medical staff and equipment to address the poor conditions that instigated the lawsuits. While the prison population rose dramatically over the last few year he says the state never kept pace with investments in doctors and nurses and better health facilities.

Meanwhile, the state California faces a $6 billion shortfall for the current fiscal year ending June 30 and a $19 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan state Legislative Analysts Office.

"The way that California ends up dealing with this problem will be an example for other states with massive budget problems and overcrowded prisons to watch and learn from," says Anthony S. Barkow, head of New York University law school's center on criminal law, which filed a brief on behalf of the inmates.

Hat tip: Kathleen

Postscript: An update on Tuesday's hearing can be found HERE. Meanwhile, as reported HERE, California is responding to the threat of a population cap by frantically shipping prisoners to private prisons in other states. Medical and mental health care is much worse in these privately run institutions, where violence is not only tolerated but may be encouraged, according to an Associated Press news story (with video of an incident in a private prison in Idaho). (By the way, did you know that the private prison industry, hankering for more captive bodies, helped author Arizona's anti-immigrant law? That fascinating story is HERE.) KALW radio has some good background on the crisis, including an audiotaped report on medical care at San Quentin.

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