California’s cruel and usual prisons: who cares?

Exercise cages for prisoners at California State Prison, Corcoran

The Supreme Court handed down its decision this week on the California prison system. The decision, by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the dissenting opinions, are riveting reading, from beginning to end.

The decision involves two cases. The first, Coleman v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious mental disorders. The second, Plata v. Brown, concerns prisoners with serious medical conditions. The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a lower court decision that mandated California reduce the size of its prison population should stand. By a 5 – 4 vote, the Court decided it should.

Many issues are engaged here. Is overcrowding the primary cause for the longstanding “needless suffering and death” that occurs in a system that has double the residents it is designed to hold? If California were not mandated to release prisoners, or otherwise reduce the prison population, would it do so on its own? Is the relief sufficiently `narrow’ to meet the legal requirements of `narrowly drawn’ and `no further than necessary’? Are the remedies imposed overly intrusive?

The public discussion has focused on overcrowding, but consider the grammar of Justice Kennedy’s argument. Here’s an example: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.  Prison officials explained they had `no place to put him.’ Other inmates awaiting care may be held for months in administrative segregation, where they endure harsh and isolated conditions and receive only limited mental health services. Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months. In 2006, the suicide rate in California’s prisons was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations; and a court-appointed Special Master found that 72.1% of suicides involved some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.’”

The situation for prisoners with serious medical illness is equally dire and cruel.

Overcrowding in California prisons has led to “serious constitutional violations”. But overcrowding is not the crisis. Overcrowding is the symptom. The two cases, Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown, speak to the responsibility of the State to take care of the most vulnerable.

“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”

The California prison crisis is not overcrowding. The crisis is not the sum total and ratio of human bodies to square feet, of good and `bad’ beds to properly residential spaces, of toilets to hundreds of individuals, of medical care providers to mentally and medically ill. The crisis is human dignity. The crisis is sustenance. The crisis is responsibility. The prison crisis in California is a crisis of State and a crisis of society. It is a crisis of care. Care haunts the Plata v. Brown decision. Care haunts California. Care haunts us all.


(Photo Credit: James L’Etoile)


About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.