Bursting at the seams: how did California's prisons become so crowded?
The U.S. Supreme Court today took on a $10 billion question: how should California deal with its overcrowded prisons? The case covers decades of controversy, during which the state has been repeatedly charged with endangering the lives of sick inmates. Last year, a federal court decided that California was unable to improve its prisons' mental health and medical services, and it must reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates. The state contends releasing so many convicts would compromise public safety. Now that the case is in the high court's hands, California's long-standing prison dilemma will finally be solved, one way or another.
KALW's Rina Palta reports.
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RINA PALTA: To understand this story, you need to understand a historical disagreement between two branches of government: the legislative and the judicial. It has to do with America's rapidly increasing prison population. Between 1980 and 1996, the number of people behind bars around the country jumped from 500,000 to 1.6 million. Federal judges in places like Texas, Alabama and Louisiana found that unsustainable. They told states they could only keep people behind bars if they could house them properly – because they weren't. Prisons were jammed, overcrowded and unsafe. The courts cited the Eighth Amendment, the one that bars cruel and unusual punishment. And as a result:
BARRY KRISBERG: In the ‘80s and ‘90s there were quite a few prison caps that were implemented around the country.
Barry Krisberg is a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. He says federal lawmakers saw what the courts were doing and decided they were going too far. So in 1996 they passed the PLRA, or Prison Litigation Reform Act.
KRISBERG: The Prison Litigation Reform Act was specifically enacted to stop that practice, to make it harder to do.
Krisberg says in part, it was meant to discourage prisoners from filing frivolous lawsuits. Now, judges can still make correctional systems remedy constitutional violations, but their orders must be very specific and narrow. So, if they call for releasing prisoners, the court must show that's the only solution to the problem. Proving that is a lengthy and difficult process that makes it harder for judges to intervene to improve prison conditions.
KRISBERG: And since it passed, there's been no state system that's really been under this umbrella. So in one sense, it produced a chilling end to litigation on behalf of prisoner rights.
Now, the case against California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is testing this law like it's never been tested before. It's called Schwarzenegger v. Coleman and Plata. The Supreme Court will have to decide whether a lower court violated the PLRA when it issued an order capping California's prison population and compelling the state to release about 40,000 inmates in the next two years.
So how did we get to this point?
To find out, I visited San Quentin, California's oldest prison. Lieutenant Sam Robinson, the prison's public information officer, says in 1885 San Quentin did something no other prison in the country had done.
LT. SAM ROBINSON: We put a hospital facility on its grounds. We were forward thinking to do so in that if you're going to house someone long term, you need to provide some type of health care services to them.
Other prisons around the country followed San Quentin's example. But over the next century, prison populations grew, and medical and mental health facilities didn't keep up. By 2006, some California prisons were housing three times as many inmates as they were designed for. Dr. Lisa Pratt is the chief physician at San Quentin State Prison.
LISA PRATT: We were seeing patients literally in converted showers and closets. In places that didn't allow certainly for any patient confidentiality. And the places that we did access were generally really dirty. They weren't equipped generally as clinic space.
There wasn't enough staff to get inmates from place to place and about half weren't making it to their doctors' appointments. Many diabetics weren't getting their insulin. Many mentally ill patients weren't taking their anti-psychotic drugs. Crowded conditions were making more and more people susceptible to communicable diseases, which meant prisons would go into lockdown just to stop them from spreading. In 2005, an inmate was needlessly dying every six or seven days. Pratt says the doctors did their best, but it wasn't pretty.
PRATT: It was a little bit like field medicine. Kind of a Doctors without Borders right here in Marin County.
Federal courts have been aware of California's prison problems for decades. In the 1991 Coleman case, which deals with mental health care, a federal court issued over 70 orders to fix the system. In the 2001 Plata case, a federal court ordered improvements to medical care in prisons. Changes were slow to come, and by 2005, the court said it had had enough…
LIZ KANTER: … and decided that the Department of Corrections needed to lose control of that health care.
Liz Kanter is a spokesperson for Clark Kelso, the federal receiver whom the court put in charge of prison medical care.
KANTER: And the receiver is there to put it back on track and eventually give it back to the Department of Corrections.
Kanter is standing in the middle of one of the receiver's greatest accomplishments, the new medical facility at San Quentin.And she's with Jackie Clark.
JACKIE CLARK: Jackie Clark, CEO of health care …
… San Quentin. Before the receivertook charge, San Quentin'smedical facilityhadn't changed muchin a century. And it didn't have a CEO making sure it was run smoothly, well-staffed and coordinated with security personnel. Now, it does:
JACKIE CLARK: So here is your TTA, and it has four sick bays. Isolation room. We do have an intake facility. And again, we get people in with infectious disease that we sometimes have to isolate… while we're trying to diagnose that person. And that's this area here where they can be held until we determine where they need to go. If it's something that we can treat here, we will admit them to the fourth floor in one of our isolation rooms. We typically see somewhere between about 35 to 40 inmates in the TTA a day.
A year ago, Kanter says, this new facility was completed.
KANTER: Clean, modern. Things aren't dripping off the walls. We're right in the middle of doing electronic records.
Statewide, the receiver has distributed computers, started a central pharmacy for prescriptions and filled in staffing positions that were previously left vacant for lack of applicants. San Quentin health care Clark says:
CLARK: You don't grow up to say, “I want to be a doctor to work in a prison setting.” Prior to the receiver, I was told this was a huge problem, that physicians that worked here had issues with their medical license.
That's become less of an issue. Since 2005, the state has put over $3.5 billion into medical care. That's led to upgrades at several prisons, including San Quentin, Avenal and the California Institution for Men. Now, the San Quentin facility is looking to get accredited as a hospital, which would require meeting national criteria for medical treatment. That would potentially make the facility, with its four floors, mental health beds, triage center and updated equipment, the standard of care for the rest of the state's prison system.
KANTER: It's a beautiful facility. Is it the standard? We'd like it to be, but the money's not there.
Simply put, California can't afford to make it happen. Billions of dollars of budget shortfalls over the past seven years have forced reductions in state-funded education, transportation and health care. So the idea of improving health facilities in prisons, right now, doesn't generate much political will.
Which brings us back to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. In 2008, federal Judge Thelton Henderson convened a three-judge panel under the PLRA. The panel was to decide if California even had the capacity to ever fully resolve its medical and mental health care issues. After reviewing the records for a year, the panel decided that the state could not, if the prison system remains so overcrowded. So it ordered a population cap, saying California prisons will have to start operating at no more than 137.5 percent of their combined designed capacity. To get down to that level, the state will have to release nearly 40,000 inmates over the next two years.
CARTER PHILLIPS: The three-judge panel jumped the gun.
Carter Phillips is an attorney with Sidley Austin in Washington D.C. He's representing the Department of Corrections, which has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Phillips says Judge Henderson should have waited for the receivership to settle in before moving to release inmates.
PHILLIPS: Before jumping to something that's as frightening, candidly, as prisoner release, what the court ought to do is send it back and allow the receiver to see if they can't work through the constitutional concerns first and then, only if they can't, worry about releasing prisoners.
Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a population cap is a last resort. The court must have exhausted all other options and decided that there's not only no other way to remedy constitutional abuses, but that overcrowding itself is the primary problem. It must also have little or no impact on public safety. Phillips says the improvements the state has made over the past few years and the fact that other possible solutions haven't run their course yet means this court order doesn't fit with the law.
KRISBERG: That's what the state has been arguing, but there's slim to little evidence supporting their view.
Again, Barry Krisberg with the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice.
KRISBERG: I think the heart of this case is the argument that the extraordinary overcrowding in the California system, which is probably more crowded than any state system in the United States, basically prevents the ability of the state to comply with court orders and the consent decree. No matter how much money is spent, no matter how many people are hired. Short of rebuilding the entire prison system from scratch, which is impossible, crowding is the key here.
Krisberg says if this case, which has spanned decades and involved unprecedented scrutiny, is not supported by the Supreme Court, it's hard to envision any role for federal judicial intervention in prisons. Which would mean prison reforms would need to come from the hands of legislators – which, historically, has been rare.
For Crosscurrents, I'm Rina Palta.