Big news for California last week, with a decision in Brown v. Plata, an important case for prisoner rights. This case is primarily being reported in the media as a mandate for prisoner release, which to some extent, it is; it affirms a decision to mandate a reduction in California’s prisoner population to address prison overcrowding. To illustrate how severe the overcrowding is, the state must reduce the prisoner population to a mere 137.5% of capacity in the next two years. The media wants you to know that this case means that California is about to be flooded with a horde of violent criminals, and that’s the main takeaway it wants you to have. Nothing else to see here, move along!
The truth, as it often is, is much more complicated. This is not just a case about prison overcrowding, a historic and very serious problem in California. It is also a case about access to basic health care services in California prisons. This is a saga that has been battled out in the courts for over 20 years; back in 1990, the court determined that mentally ill prisoners were not receiving adequate health care services and ordered the state to do better. A series of legal machinations and arguments led to the decision to put the prison health care system into receivership, an indicator that the state was not able to meet the health care needs of its prisoners. Last year, a judge determined that even with the receivership, California was still failing its prisoners. The current litigation directly speaks to the ongoing battle over access to health care in prisons not just in California, but across the United States, where a prison term can be a death sentence.
Would you like to know what prison overcrowding looks like? I’ll warn you, it is not pleasant. A number of photo exhibits were submitted to the Supreme Court, and the California Department of Corrections helpfully published some illustrative photos as well. These images depict warehouses for human beings and the CDC images are particularly striking in terms of illustrating that this is not a new issue in California, with dates stretching back into the early 2000s. Bunks in stacks of three in huge open rooms with no privacy. Prisoners living cheek by jowl in incredibly crowded environments. Clearly, the Supreme Court found these images as unpleasant and compelling as I did.
The prison-industrial complex is one of the few growth industries in the United States right now. It is impossible to talk about the ‘justice system’ in the United States without pointing out that there are tremendous racial and class disparities in the justice system as a whole, starting with racial profiling and hardly ending with sentencing disparities. Prison conditions in California are not just a human rights violation, they are evidence of the impacts of widespread institutional racism. This decision does not even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to fighting for equal rights for prisoners in the United States, let alone challenging the structure of the legal system as a whole.
Overall, Black, Latino, and Native American communities are overrepresented in the prison population. The people living in these conditions are primarily young men of colour, many of whom are in prison for nonviolent offenses, often victims of California’s racialised mandatory drug sentencing laws. You cannot address prison overcrowding without talking about who ends up in prison, and how, and why, and what that means about society in general and the handling of ‘justice’ in a nation that supposedly believes in equality and justice for all.
Overcrowding tends to create health problems, a natural result of pressing massed numbers of humanity into a space far too small to accommodate them. California’s prison population, like other prison populations, is not particularly healthy to begin with. Prisoners are more likely to have HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other chronic illnesses. California also has large numbers of prisoners with disabilities, particularly intellectual and cognitive disabilities. Mental illness in prisons is very high, for a variety of reasons; crowded conditions can stress prisoners with latent mental illness, mentally ill people are less likely to be able to mount a defense in court, prisoners without known mental health conditions may develop anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder in crowded conditions.
Provision of inadequate health services in California prisons means that prisoners die on a very regular basis. Access to any kind of treatment and medications is mediated by guards, who can and do control every aspect of the lives of prisoners. Guards routinely deny access to lifesaving medications; almost a decade ago, the ACLU was filing suits about this. The Department of Justice’s Deaths in Custody Reporting Program provides a grim look at the consequences of imprisonment for people with mental or physical health conditions and the Los Angeles Times helpfully has a ‘prison deaths‘ tag. Being in prison can be fatal, even if you entered prison in good physical and mental health.
What this case affirms is not just that California’s prisons are overcrowded, but that the state of California routinely failed to provide adequate health services to prisoners. Despite being repeatedly taken to court on the issue, the state insisted that it was meeting the health care needs of prisoners, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thankfully, the courts disagreed with the state, and also indicated the most expedient and obvious method for addressing the issue: reducing the prison population to reduce the burden on the prison health care system. Meanwhile, the state busily denies medical parole cases.
One of the most disturbing things to think about with the upcoming prisoner release isn’t the flood of citizens clutching at their pearls as California’s prison population is reduced, but the fact that people who could not access health care in prison also will not be able to access health care outside of it. California’s budget for social services has been repeatedly slashed, making it extremely difficult to enroll in assistance programs that might cover the costs of health care or managing a disability. Prisoners are less able to find work upon release, which means they are unlikely to be entering the workforce and snapping up jobs with benefits; not with an unemployment rate hovering above 10% they’re not. At least some of the prisoners that may be released under this decision will be released to certain death on the streets.
Except that this is not actually a mandate for prisoner release. It is a mandate to reduce the prison population.
Governor Jerry Brown has been discussing the transfer of prisoners to local jails in California for months now, and this decision adds fuel to the fire. The legislature supports this plan, which places the burden for providing prisoner care on to local communities. The same communities with declining revenues to pay for services as it is, receiving less support from the state to provide social services. Brown likes this plan because it saves money for the state, but will prisoners get the services and care they need in county correctional facilities and the ominously worded ‘other facilities’?
Conditions in California prisons are clearly, undeniably, unconstitutional. What’s unclear is whether any solution to California’s prison problem will meet Constitutional standards.
If you’d like more information on the legal ramifications of this case, Prison Law Blog has several roundups on the topic from people who actually know what they are talking about when it comes to legal theory. I’d particularly recommend the commentary from Inimai M. Chettiar on how this decision may, contrary to public claims, make California safer, as well as Steve Lopez’ column at the Los Angeles Times discussing why the prison population in California is so large, and how the state wastes money and resources incarcerating people for minor offenses.