Skip to content

California Prisons: Really, Really Inhumane, Says the Supreme Court

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.


  1. Kat wrote:

    Thank you for writing about this! I had no idea the plan was for county jails to take on the burden… Oh my lord. I work with incarcerated women in Texas and I’m always shocked by people’s assumptions that incarcerated people are subhuman.

    Excellent point about the lack of mental health care in the free world as well. They shut down many state run mental hospitals in Texas a while back, so now those people are homeless and/or in jail and prison. What the logic is behind this baffles me. Prevention and treatment is always less expensive (but when the private prisons are money machines, who’s gonna stop ’em?).

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  2. aravind wrote:

    The 3 strikes law (and related idiotic complexities to the California criminal code) are seriously detrimental to any sense of a “justice” system. It removes any sense that crimes are actually weighted, instead streamlining a system that was already pushing certain segments of the population (as you said disproportionately being with lower socio-economic standing or on the wrong side of the colorline, especially when both) into what’s essentially lifelong incarceration. Considering that numerous states reduce (and in some cases waive) minimum wage laws for the incarcerated, I honestly think there’s a really minimal distinction between what’s happening now and a more industrial form of slavery.

    What’s terrifyingly underreported is how frequently non-violent (or comparatively less violent) protest against these dehumanizing and disgusting practices is met with state violence, for instance how Georgia dealt with a “riot” (actually, a remarkably peaceful and articulate protest):

    Likewise, on mental health, California got a jump start on a lot of other states, when Governor Reagan shut down the larger mental health institutions, forcing huge numbers of mentally unstable people out into the streets. They’ve been trickling into the prisons in California over the past thirty-five years, with laws like the 3 strikes provision increasing retention over the period as well. For all intents and purposes state institutions for mental health rehabilitation and incarceration have been merged in California – and the results have been predictably (and unpredictably) disastrous.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 4:45 am | Permalink
  3. samanthab wrote:

    I have to somewhat disagree with your characterization of why there are so many mentally ill people in prison, or at least add to it. It isn’t that they aren’t able to mount a good defense in court; it’s that they’re being punished for having a mental illness. I know of a number of people personally for whom this is true, and, if you watch say the Frontline on the mentally ill in prisons, you see that this is the norm, not the exception.

    There is no defense that can be mounted against a society that thinks that symptoms of mental illness deserve punishment rather than treatment. I think it’s naive and misinformed to point to the defense as the issue, when it’s a systemic approach.

    And, Aravind, the term “mentally unstable” connotes a threat, which is part of the problem here. Your terminology shows a fundamental lack of respect for the mentally ill, and then you’re surprised that they end up being treated punitively.

    The idea that they should be locked up somewhere, out of sight and out of mind, is fairly callous as well. Yeah, Reagan closed the bigger hospitals, but you’re ignoring that he also cut the alternative, the community mental health care centers. You’ve presented a binary of options here, and there are quite a few more. I guess you’re lucky enough to have never spent time in or visited a mental institution; they’re pretty hellish places for the most part. I don’t know that your implication that the mentally ill ought to be locked up in institutions rather than in prisons is really the progressive stance you seem to believe it is. If you define progressivism as having something to do with respect for all humanity, that stance doesn’t meet the standard.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink
  4. David Harmon wrote:

    What worries me is that the California government is likely to do everything they can to avoid releasing those nonviolent drug defenders. Aside from transfer to local (and less-visible) jails, I predict what we’ll see them dumping white male murderers and rapists on the street, long before they even think about releasing one of Those Druggies.

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  5. aravind wrote:

    “Yeah, Reagan closed the bigger hospitals, but you’re ignoring that he also cut the alternative, the community mental health care centers. You’ve presented a binary of options here, and there are quite a few more.

    I didn’t get into the complexities of his decision because I was worried it would turn into a longer tangent in an already long-winded post. I absolutely agree – the smaller community clinics Reagan held up as the solution would have been much more effective than the larger mental institutions at treating people and reduced the dehumanizing aspects of that treatment. You’re right to point out that if those alternatives had been funded there would have been a much better alternative, but I honestly doubt Reagan had any intention of providing funds – the whole point was a short term cost reduction (for the state), with no real consideration put into how this would affect other important institutions (like the criminal justice system) and individuals with mental illnesses (and wasn’t that supposedly the whole point?).

    But I hope we can both agree that while the mental institutions were frequently horrendous, they were at least specialized as something vaguely like mental health, which while woefully inadequate and in practice more harmful than helpful to people is better than completely ignoring mental health as an issue and for many people effectively criminalizing their conditions. My point wasn’t that the mental health system before Reagan cut everything was acceptable, let alone ideal or a model. It was, however, a sign of organized mental health treatment by the state – which is better than the weird limbo of unofficially merging mental health patients with the criminal population and officially ignoring the problem altogether.

    I think an important thing to not lose sight of in all of this is that stigmas against people with mental illnesses are just one of the factors in play here – there’s a similar “keep them out sight and under control” narrative against the homeless, Latinos, and black men as well (and I’d argue, to at least some extent Latinas and black women as well and with somewhat similar approaches towards Native Americans too).

    This is all a long winded way of saying that I agree with you, and I’m very sorry for using the term mentally unstable. I did not intend to connote a risk of violence, but clearly I did, and I’m sorry for that.

    I think David’s hit on the nail on the head – there’s a huge portion of the prison population in California that frankly doesn’t belong there. It’s rapidly becoming primarily people (who are disproportionately Latino) with what are honestly unimportant immigration violations, people (who have disproportionately lower socio-economic and racial statuses) with nonviolent drug charges (aggravated by a variety of issues, including the three strikes law and similar policies), people who are homeless (on the grounds of all sorts of anti-homelessness laws like those in SF), and people who are mentally ill. The last time I was called in for jury duty, the case was about a Latino man that was being tried with avoiding arrest, not actually having done anything, but simply avoiding a police force that clearly seems more about enforcing norms than laws.

    At the core of it all, the criminal justice system in this state seems to be pretending to be about justice or criminality. When you actually look at how it’s operating, it’s (exactly as you said Samantha) about othering people – at the very least by race, by class, and by mental health status.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  6. aravind wrote:

    Argh, broken italics!

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  7. carovee wrote:

    It’s too bad that the supreme court said “CA you need to reduce your prison population” not “Prisoners Inc you need to stop bilking the state while simultaneously gutting services”. I can’t get my conservative relatives to understand that as long as corporations can make millions taking taxpayer dollars there will never be “small government”. The only choice we have is, do we spend the money actually delivering services or do we line the pockets of middlemen?

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  8. Joel Reinstein wrote:

    awesome. all in a “blue state.” At least they don’t have privatized prisons…right?

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  9. s.e. smith wrote:

    Funny you should mention that, Joel

    Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  10. Dawn. wrote:

    Absolutely fucking despicable. Thank you for writing about this issue.

    Monday, June 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink