"California Prison System Bursting at the Seams"
By Dana M. Grimes, Esq.
Published: February 2011 "Trial Bar News"
The State of California - by its own admission - has violated the Constitution in the implementation of our prison system. Since reaching an all-time inmate population record of more than 160,000 in October 2006, the state's adult prison institutions have housed almost double their intended capacity; California currently has about 148,000 adult inmates. That means that approximately 1 in every 240 California residents resides in a "Big House" - one of California's 33 prisons, run by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (CDRC).
The CDRC has failed its inmates and failed the public, and if the last few decades of history have taught us one thing, it is that the deteriorating bureaucracy that makes up our prison system will not change on its own accord.
California's Long History of Cruel and Unusal Treatment of Inmates
For decades, the legal fight has been waged over who has final authority of the California prison system. It started with lawsuits highlighting the cruel treatment of the mentally ill. In 1995, in Coleman v. Wilson, 912 F.Supp. 1282, federal district court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled prison officials were "deliberately indifferent" to mentally ill inmates' needs, and found that as a result of overcrowding, the entire CDRC mental health services were so inadequate as to violate the inmates' Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
In Plata v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal. 2005), a federal class action civil rights suit filed in 2001, the plaintiffs alleged deficiencies including: inadequate medical screening of incoming prisoners; inability to contain the spread of infectious disease; delays in or failure to provide access to medical care, including specialist care; untimely responses to medical emergencies; the interference of custodial staff with the provision of medical care; incompetent medical staff; disorganized and incomplete medical records; and a lack of quality control procedures, including lack of physician peer review, quality assurance and death reviews, and a lack of protocols to deal with chronic illnesses.
Plaintiffs and defendants negotiated a stipulation of injunctive relief, which included comprehensive policies and procedures approximatley 800 pages long (contained in 20 volumes), which the court approved in 2002, noting that while the lengthy policies and procedures were good goals, defendants were required to provide "only the minimum level of medical care required under the Eighth Amendment." When little improvement was noted over the following three years, the Plata Court put the prison health care system in federal receivership. (Receivership dates back to the English Chancery Courts for the protection of real property. See Clark: A Treatise on the Law and Practice of Receivers [3rd Ed. 1959] ["Treatise on Receivers"]. Receivers were then used to protect civil rights, and shaped remedies and provided the basis for reconciling public and private needs. Brown v. Bd. of Educ. 349 U.S. 294, 300 . These principles were later extended to other civil rights settings, including correctional facilities [See Newman v. State of Ala., 466 F.Supp 628 (1979)].) The Receiver was appointed after six days of hearings with significant expert testimony which demonstrated that the mechanism for the provision of medical care throughout the CDRC was beyond repair as a result of overcrowding. Plata, Id. at pp. 1-3.
The Plata Court noted that the CDRC is literally killing people, at the rate of about one inmate per week:
"Tragically, California's inmates have long been denied even that minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal. Inmates are forced to wait months or years for medically necessary appointments and examinations, and many receive inadequate medical care in substandard facilities that lack the medical equipment required to conduct routine examinations or afford essential medical treatment. Seriously mentally ill inmates languish in horrific conditions without access to necessary mental health care, raising the acuity of mental illness throughout the system and increasing the risk of inmate suicide. A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the state's failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days."
(Id., at pp. 6-7, emphasis added.)
A 2005 Nursing Experts' Report on San Quentin indicated:
The "[m]ost disturbing" conditions were in one unit where [t]he area used for nursing triage [was] a small room at the end of the tier that the nurse accesses by walking through a gate and into the men's showers . . . Because of a clogged shower drain, standing water was present outside the clinic door. Inside, the room was filthy. The furniture was old and in disrepair. There was no examination table, medical equipment or supplies, or handwashing facilities. According to staff, equipment . . . requested for this area had been denied. As well, there was no telephone or computer access. Prior to this room being used, a broom closet on the fourth tier was used for nursing triage. These conditions are deplorable and have no resemblance to a medical setting whatsoever.
2005 Nursing Experts' Report on San Quentin, at p. 2 (filed in Plata on May 10, 2005).
Plata v. Schwarzenegger (the constitutionaly inadequate medical care case) was consolidated with Coleman v. Schwarzenegger (the constitionally inadequate mental health care case) and assigned to a three-judge court in 2007 to hear motions for relief pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996. In August 2009, this three-judge federal court panel - composed of Ninth Circuit Judge Reinhardt, and district court judges Henderson and Karlton - made a ruling under the Prison Litigation Reform Act that the remedy for the unconstitutional overcrowding is a prison population cap at 137.5% of design capacity. The panel found that reducing prison overcrowding was the only way to change the unconstitutional prison health care system. Their scathing 184 page Opinion and Order (hereinafter "Panel Order") begins dramatically:
California's correctional system is in a tailspin, the state's independent oversight agency has reported. Ex. P3 at i (Jan. 2007 Little Hoover Commission Report, "Solving California's Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out"). Tough-on-crime politics have increased the population of California's prisons dramatically while making necessary reforms impossible. Id., at ii, pp. 2-5, 9, 20. As a result, the state's prisons have become places "of extreme peril to the safety of persons" they house, Ex. P1 at pp. 7-8 (Governor Schwarzenegger's Oct. 4, 2006 Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency Declaration), while contributing little to the safety of California's residents, Ex. P3 at ii. Californa "spends more on corrections than most countries in the world," but the state "reaps fewer public safety benefits. Id. at p. 14. Although California's existing prison system serves neither the public nor the inmates well, the state has for years been unable or unwilling to implement the reforms necessary to reverse its continuing deterioration.
Panel Order, at p. 1.
The three-judge federal panel indicated state officials had failed to comply with previous court orders to reduce overcrowding, failed to improve the health care system and failed to recommend parole system reforms as had been previously ordered. The order to reduce the prison population was entered in January 2010, and California appealed the matter to the United States Supreme Court in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-1233.
The Billion Dollar Prison-Industrial Complex
No other first world democracy is nearly as punitive as the United States. The rate of incarceration here per capita is five times the rate in Great Britain, nine times the rate of Germany, and 12 times that of Japan. California has particularly harsh sentences. California does not deal with more serious crime than other similar states, we just imprison more people, and we spend more doing it - the cost of imprisoning an inmate for one year in California is over $30,000, much higher than the national average. Schmidt, Steve (April 18, 2005). Troubled System: Governor Faces Uphill Battle Reforming Prisons, San Diego Union Tribune.
California brought this situation onto itself, as the three-judge federal panel observed in 2009, by continuing to pass tough sentencing laws, such as three-strikes and determinate sentencing laws, while simultaneously refusing to spend what it would take to legally house, clothe, feed, and medicate the incoming thousands of inmates. These tough sentencing laws resulted after some Democratic legislators and judges lost their positions after being accused of being "soft on crime" - a phrase that quickly became a political death sentence. When the pendulum started swinging toward locking people up some 30 years ago, California had about 20,000 inmates. Now it has 150,000.
Aside from the politically difficult challenge of opposing increasingly tough sentencing laws, why do we have a hugely over-populated and wildly expensive prison system? The prison guard union is a hugely powerful group of lobbyists who represent economic interests of the prison industrial complex. The influence of the prison guard union, officially the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), is dramatic; its political activity regularly exceeds that of all other labor unions in California. The prison guard union spends heavily on influencing political campaigns, and on lobbying legislators and other government officials, contributing $3 million to Governor Gray Davis' campaign, for example. (In a less financially dramatic but more insidious example, Del Norte County District Attorney Bill Cornell was reportedly targeted by the prison guard union after he successfully prosecuted a guard for organizing inmate-on-inmate assaults in Pelican Bay State Prison. The CCPOA provided District Attorney Cornell's opponent with $20,000 the following election, reportedly the largest contribution ever made in Del Norte. James, Stephen. March 17, 2005. Decline of the Empire.
The prison guard union was a driving force behind the three-strikes initiative, which curtailed the sentencing discretion from experienced trial judges, which in turn led to the construction of 22 maximum security prisons between 1984 and 1997, where we now house an increasingly geriatric prison inmate community. The CCPOA goal is simple: they strive to imprison as many people as possible. The rationale is simple: more prisoners leads to more prisons, which leads to more guards, which leads to expanded fundraising capability, which leads to more political influence. Want to retire at 50 and make $100,000 a year with cost of living increases? Become a prison guard. According to a study conducted at Berkeley in 2005, comparing salaries over a 22-year period of time, average prison guard salaries in 1980 were $14,440 per year; in 2002, with overtime, salaries in excess of $100,000 were found to be common. Institute of Governmental Studies, U.C. Berkeley (2005). California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
The CCPOA and representatives of many peace officers' unions are quick to argue their justification of the extremely generous retirement and pension policy is that peace officers risk their lives in the name of public safety. However, this does not explain why more than 100 lawyers and auditors working for California's prison oversight office carry guns, drive state cars home at night and become eligible for the same types of pensions. According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, "None of the 105 sworn peace officers in the California Office of the Inspector General has made an arrest, fired a gun in the line of duty or responded to an emergency in a state car in the last five years . . . One accidentally shot himself at a practice range." Los Angeles Times, p. AA. "An Odd Class of 'Peace Officer'" December 10, 2010.
Of course, the biggest benefit of peace officer status is the early retirement and pension. Peace officers can start collecting 3% of their highest annual salary, multiplied by the number of years worked, at age 50 (there is now a cap, so that the maximum collected amount is 90% of the person's highest salary).
Update 5/30/2011- The Supreme Court, in Brown vs Plata, has upheld the ruling of the 9th Circuit court of appeals that overcrowding in California prisons violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. More than 33,000 prisoners must be moved out of the prisons. When this has been accomplished, the prisons will still be filled to 137.5% of their intended capacity.
Update 4/5/2013-Federal Judge Lawrence Carlton ruled last week that California has not improved its mental healthcare for inmates enough to remove federal federal court oversight. The judge found that climbing suicide rates, shortage of mental health beds and mental health workers, and inadequate treatment space, amount to "deliberate indifference"