California’s prisons are still dangerously overcrowded

In 2011, the Supreme Court intervened in California’s increasingly dangerous prison system. Ruling 5-4, the court determined that conditions inside California’s prisons were unconstitutional, a violation of the eighth amendment that needed to be rectified by rapidly bringing prison populations down. In practice, this worked out into prison realignment—shifting many prisoners to jails, and also releasing thousands deemed eligible to be safely integrated back into society.

The prison system is complicated, and so is the justice system that brings people into the gaping maw of California’s penal system. As an abolitionist, I believe that no one should be in prison, ever, and that there are more productive ways of addressing lawbreaking behaviours, including crimes against persons as well as property (though I reject the treatment of property as an entity that needs to be treated as equivalent to a human being, speaking of nuance).

Several things are notable about Brown v Plata, the case that forced California to make adjustments in its prison system. One was that it occurred under the shadow of a receivership that the prison health care system has been in since 2006, after authorities deemed in 2001 that the justice system was not adequately meeting the health care needs of prisoners and it was unable to comply with recommendations, forcing an outside oversight group to take over. In addition, the court mandated that California remedy the situation within two years, pushing for swift action when it came to getting prisoners out of dangerous, crowded, filthy conditions. Finally, the order mandated that California reduce prison populations to 137 percent of ‘designed capacity.’ This number is shocking on its face because it indicates that the court still admitted that overcrowding would continue to be an issue, and found it acceptable for the California prison system to keep crowding prisoners into facilities not designed to deal with their numbers. It’s also shocking because it’s a reminder of how crowded California prisons were at the time of the ruling. 

The crowding was so bad that 137 percent of capacity would be an improvement. 

In 2014, California applied for an extension, unable to meet the terms of Brown v Plata. A court agreed to grant it, under the condition that an oversight officer be put in charge to monitor progress and exercise step in rights to release prisoners if the state couldn’t address overcrowding quickly enough, sending a sharp message to the state that it was under scrutiny.

Nearly 3,000 prisoners have been released, some of them thanks to prop 47, which addressed some of California’s many problems with mandatory sentencing by reclassifying certain types of crimes, giving judges more leeway and resulting in fewer—and shorter—prison sentences. Law enforcement have been quick to claim that crime rates are accelerating due to early release, but California’s crime rate is actually at its lowest since 1967. Crime has been steadily on the decrease, though California still has a higher crime rate than some states, and this seems to suggest that, surprise surprise, releasing a handful of prisoners back into the state’s massive civilian population has had no effect. (If we want to play the correlation and causation game, we should release even more prisoners, because crime rates have been dropping steadily since the mandate for prison realignment.)

Of course, releasing that many prisoners still didn’t solve the overcrowding problem, leading many prisons to shift burdens to local jails, which are not equipped to handle prisoners who will be staying for extended periods of time. Jails lack adequate housing, exercise space, and health care facilities, they also need to make room for inmates in temporary detention, and they’re understaffed in some counties due to service cuts designed to address budget shortfalls, a perennially and perhaps quintessentially California problem.

Moreover, it really hasn’t solved the health care problem in California prisons, which is one of the key reasons people filed suit against the state in the first place. Going into the system is still a sentence to death for some prisoners with chronic illnesses, and some prisoners acquire illnesses and disabilities while incarcerated. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C are rampant in California prisons—which only recently began providing condoms to inmates in an act of harm reduction to address the issue—and many patients need dialysis, maintenance medications, and other treatments to stay alive. Accessing treatment is still a challenge for many California prisoners, and preventable deaths are an ongoing issue.

Overcrowding hit the news in a big way in 2011 thanks to Brown v Plata, and mentions spiked occasionally in 2012 and 2014 as the state began prison realignment and filed for an extension. But it’s faded from much of public awareness, treated as an issue that’s no longer important. California was ordered to reduce overcrowding with prisoner transfer, releases, and in-community treatment of parolees so it must have done all of these things and addressed the problem, right?

This isn’t actually the case, and the state still needs to be under pressure with respect to overcrowding. It hasn’t even met the demands of Brown v Plata, let alone taken on the larger issue of how it could possibly be acceptable to run a prison system at nearly 140 percent of capacity. Even those who do support incarceration as a social tool and a necessary thing for the common good must be able to generally agree that forcing people into crowded conditions is dangerous, and can exacerbate risks for prisoners and facility staffers alike. Why can’t California get its act together on prison reform after all this time?

Image: san quentin I, telmo32, Flickr