California must release roughly 40,000 inmates over the next two years to ease the severe overcrowding of the state’s prisons, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote Monday. In the most significant prison rights case by the high court in years, the court upheld (5-4) judges have the power to order prisoner releases if constitutional rights are violated.
California has 23 prisons designed to house 80,000 inmates but it has more than double that number, the court pointed out. Crowding is so serious that as many as 54 inmates may share a single toilet, according to the majority. It upheld the cap on inmate population of 137 percent of capacity, or roughly 110,000 inmates. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that courts have a responsibility to remedy Eighth Amendment violations of inmate rights if a prison deprives inmates of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care. The opinion is here.
The majority agreed with a special three-judge review panel that California’s prison overcrowding was the basic cause of depriving inmates of adequate medical care. The three judges, after lengthy review found that inmates were regularly dying for lack of proper care.
Monday’s ruling is significant because it upholds a Congressional formula that limited a single judge’s ability to order inmate releases. Congress, fearful that a single judge could order prisoners released from prisons, required that special three-judge panels oversee claims of constitutional rights violations if one remedy could be release of prisoners.
Two cases, one challenging the adequacy of medical care and the other challenging mental health care, blamed severe overcrowding as the cause of constitutional violations. A consent agreement with the state in 2002 was intended to remedy overcrowding after years of litigation. But the state repeatedly failed to meet the terms of the consent agreement. Overcrowding and poor care continued.
Evidence showed high vacancy rates for medical and mental health staff, including 20 percent vacancy for surgeons and 54 percent for psychiatrists. Thousands of mentally ill prisoners waited for treatment and backlogs of 700 inmates waited for medical care. And after 12 years of litigation, a special master reported in 2006 that suicides by inmates continued to exceed the national average, with no improvement in suicide prevention as late as 2010.
California has reduced the inmate population by roughly 9,000 in the last two years, but overcrowding remains well over the allowed limit set by the three-judge panel.
Case: Brown v. Plata, 09-1233 (US Supreme Court)