Conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, in a 5-4 decision that was accompanied by a blistering dissent by Justice Scalia. The Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates which also set off Judge Alito to rant like one of those preachers who mistakenly proclaimed May 21 to be the Day of Rapture: “I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner-release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.”
Let’s take a step back and look at what this lawsuit is about: California’s state prison system has a capacity of 80,000 inmates. Thanks in part to the no discretion, “three strikes” law, the system now houses over 140,000.00 – that’s over 150% of capacity. California addresses the issue by stacking inmates on top of one another in minute cells with multiple bunk beds. Suicidal inmates are placed in cages the size of telephone booths (remember those?) WITHOUT TOILETS. Inmates there are regularly left to bask in their own excrement for hours. The Cali prison system has the highest inmate suicide rate in the country -over 80% above the national average. The lower court in this case declared that it is “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”
This lawsuit was started in 1990 – that’s right 1990, the case can legally drink in every state in the Union. Through the years, the lower court and the appellate court both ruled that the conditions were so deplorable that they violated the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court, as usual, was split along ideological lines – 4to the left and 4 to the right with Justice Kennedy providing the crucial 5th vote as he has many times this term already (though this is the first time he sided with the left wing). This was not unexpected as Justice Kennedy has long complained about excessive sentences and mandatory jail terms that remove a judge’s discretion and ability to make a case by case decision. He boiled it down to a simple statement:
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
Who could disagree with that statement? Who could think that warehousing human beings like sardines without any medical care is Constitutional? Who else but the New Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia. Alito in an opinion joined by Roberts claimed public safety would be jeopardized. While he recognized that “particular prisoners received shockingly deficient medical care” (meaning they died in their cells of curable illnesses) he said, when you consider that the prison population is greater than that of many US cities like Eugene Oregon and Bridgeport Connecticut a few unnecessary deaths is not too bad a record. His public safety argument however ignores much of the evidence and expert testimony in the case. For example, the Acting State Correction Commissioner of California, who was also the former warden of San Quentin, one of California’s most notorious prisons, stated that the system “makes people worse and that we are not meeting public safety by the way we treat people.”
Scalia, in an opinion joined by Thomas of course, predictably stated that this was an over-extension of judicial power because the courts could have handled these issues on a case by case basis and did not need to make a blanket ruling. It took two decades for this case to get to court. How many years and how many cases would it have taken for the system to be changed if individual inmates had to bring their case one at a time? He actual gave a rare oral dissent chastising the majority decision as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” OK, that’s a bit much. First of all, the desegregation of schools was a more radical injunction, especially since the Constitution is silent on education. Second of all, Justice Kennedy gave the State two years to reduce the population to 110,000 -which is still 130+% above capacity. That’s hardly opening the flood gates. He also allowed prison officials to determine how best to reach that number safely, presumably by releasing non-violent offenders first.
That’s what the dissents ignored. That the system is overcrowded not because California has more crime than other states, but because California’s laws force judges to give long sentences to non-violent repeat offenders. All these feel-good, get-tough-on-crime proclamations have come home to roost. The facts could not be ignored – other attempted measures and court orders had been ignored over the 20 year history of the case, the overcrowding leads to significant violence and a higher incidence of mental illness and disease, the most severely ill prisoners were the ones who suffered most, the wait list to see a physician in most prisons is 700 names long, and so on and so forth. Kudos to Justice Kennedy for seeing the importance of putting our money where our mouths are. The 8th Amendment was meant to signal to the world that American society would be different, that we would honor the basic dignity and human rights of all our people, even the most heinous and lowliest among us. Dostoyevsky is credited with saying “To judge a civilization, look to its prisons.” Judge Kennedy looked and did not like what he saw.