Friday, July 1, 2011

Prison overcrowding deemed "cruel and unusual punishment"

The California prison system is so crowded that 16,000 inmates, are assigned cots in hallways and gyms.

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that California’s prisons are so overstressed, they are unconstitutionally holding prisoners without providing appropriate medical and mental health care.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in Brown v. Plata, notes that, “As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.” And suicides average one a week, he says. The Court also cited a lower court’s finding that an inmate dies unnecessarily every six to seven days. This is very disturbing. Even one of the dissenting votes, Justice Samuel Alito, acknowledged “particular prisoners received shockingly deficient medical care,” though he ended up opposing the Court’s final decision.

When the government takes someone into its custody, it also takes on the responsibility of providing medical care. To deprive inmates of adequate medical care is indeed “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It means that a prisoner serving just months for a low-level crime might die from lack of proper medical attention, turning a short sentence into a sentence of death.

Whether or not the courts are the appropriate place to establish prison policy, it is undeniable that the political system in California has failed in its responsibility to manage prisons. One of the original lawsuits complaining of unconstitutional conditions was filed 21 years ago! And the legislature and a succession of governors did nothing to address the appalling conditions in California’s prisons for all those years.

These conditions are not the fault of prison officials. They don’t choose who to hold in prison. They take the prisoners sentenced under state law, and try to house them as best as possible with the dollars given them in the budget. The fault lies at the feet of politicians who have tried to have it both ways—adding years to sentences to appear tough on crime, but not appropriating the money needed to build prisons to hold the extra prisoners those policies have locked up.

However, laying blame doesn’t help. We now have to find ways to help the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC) comply with the Court’s order without putting the public at risk. No one wants the state to release inmates who are unprepared to abide by the law when they are released. The problem is that California and most other states do not have the money to do this pre-release preparation.

Fortunately, faith-based and community groups have been stepping up to do this work at no cost to the government!

Pat Nolan
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