Friday, May 27, 2011

The California Prison Ruling


Shock and surprise. The United States Supreme Court in Its Majesty has ruled that California's Department of Corrections must reduce its inmate population by some 30,000 within 2 years or else.

Isn't that something.

California holds more prisoners than any other state (though Texas isn't that far behind) and keeps wanting to throw more of them into the "corrections" maw. Of course there are counter-pressures which have been trying to force a reduction in California prison populations for decades, but the numbers just keep going up and the conditions under which prisoners serve continue to deteriorate. The costs escalate.

California is in effect a Prison State, has been for lo these many years. The Solid South ain't got nothin' on the Good Folks of California when it comes to Lock 'em Up and Throw Away the Key.

It's practically a religion.

So when the SCOTUS gets up on its high horse and says "You can't do that," it causes something of a stir.

The abominable conditions in California prisons began to be noted many years ago, during Deukmejian's governorship, if not before, but as stories started coming out of the prison system of abuse and neglect and routine acts of brutality and official murder, and worse, much worse, the System -- and its State proprietors -- shut down media and public access to the prisons and prisoners except under carefully controlled and supervised conditions, and the stories stopped. Practically overnight, there were no more stories out of the prisons of cruelty and brutality and murder and abuse of inmates. For years, there were no stories at all.

Unless something truly awful happened, like the practice of setting up fights between rival gangs in the prisons -- and then shooting down the fighters -- there was practically no news out of the prisons at all, except periodic notes that the prison budget was growing and growing and growing, right along with prison populations, and oh, wasn't it awful what those poor guards had to go through.

The Public had no idea what was going on, and they had no reasonable way to find out.

The prisoners, their families, the DAs, the Trial Judges, the administrators and sometimes the Legislature had a good idea what was going on, but the Public was kept in the dark.

Prisoners sued over their treatment -- or in the case of mental health and medical care, lack of it -- and occasionally they won "victories." The state was violating basic constitutional and human rights, routinely and with malice. The Courts ordered reform. It didn't happen. It got worse. The prison health care system, a cruel joke, was put in Federal receivership. Where it still is. There is nowhere near enough funding, of course, to even minimally deal with prisoner health care issues, so...

To its credit, the Brown Administration has vowed to fix this situation or at least begin to, but of course the Legislative Republican Caucus refuses to allow funding the necessary reforms (one of which is to transfer low level prisoners to local jurisdiction).

So the US Supreme Court weighs in.

From the opening of the ruling, you get the impression things are dire and have been dire for decades. Indeed:

California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the decision under review the population was almost double that. The resulting conditions are the subject of two federal class actions. In Coleman v. Brown, filed in 1990, the District Court found that prisoners with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. A Special Master appointed to over-see remedial efforts reported 12 years later that the state of mental health care in California’s prisons was deteriorating due to increased overcrowding. In Plata v. Brown, filed in 2001, the State conceded that deficiencies in prison medical care violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights and stipulated to a remedial injunction. But when the State had not complied with the injunction by 2005, the court appointed a Receiver to oversee remedial efforts. Three years later, the Receiver described continuing deficiencies caused by over-crowding. Believing that a remedy for unconstitutional medical and mental health care could not be achieved without reducing over-crowding, the Coleman and Plata plaintiffs moved their respective District Courts to convene a three-judge court empowered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) to order reductions in the prison population. The judges in both actions granted the re-quest, and the cases were consolidated before a single three-judge court. After hearing testimony and making extensive findings of fact,the court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years.

This is just the beginning.

Illustrations from the Ruling:

Cages for holding mentally ill prisoners while they await "treatment."

Mule Creek Crowding Conditions.

California Institute for Men Crowding Conditions.

This ruling may start waking the Public up to what is being done in their names right here at home. Of course there are many who maintain that convicts "deserve" what they get -- and worse -- but I'm convinced many will more than agree with the ruling and they will Demand Better for the least among us, those in prison under State Authority.

It has been a long a torturous struggle to change things for the better, and it will continue.

But as the State runs out of money, the status quo cannot be maintained, and the Prison Guard's Union cannot be allowed to continue to run roughshod.

This is where my sister was injured in a prisoner take down. She subsequently died from a blood clot following surgery to repair her knees shattered in the incident.

She had previously worked at Susanville State Prison.

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