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The United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the overcrowding conditions in California State Prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Many of the state’s prisons operate at well over capacity. The state’s 140,000 inmates are housed like sardines in the 33 prisons state wide that were designed to hold only 80,000 individuals,
California’s oldest jail, San Quentin State Prison, is home to some of the state’s most dangerous death-row prisoners. Keeping the facility even remotely sanitary given the overcrowding is almost impossible, said Jeanne Woodford, former San Quentin Warden who worked at the facility for a total of 27 years, starting as a Correctional Officer. “These prisons are falling apart,” she said. The inmates locked up in the California state prisons commit suicide at double the national inmate average, experience unprecedented rates of lock-downs, receive inadequate medical treatment and sometimes live in continuous fear of violence.
These horrendous conditions were highlighted in a ruling by the Supreme Court on Monday. The high Court stated that the prisons in the state violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment in a 5-4 decision. The court ordered California cut 30,000 inmates over the next two years.”Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority.
Brown vs. Plata, began two decades ago when overcrowding was not a problem. The lawsuit was filed in 1990 on behalf of the system’s mentally ill patients, many of whom were either not receiving their medication or overmedicated to the point of being comatose. Without proper treatment, the inmates often turned to suicide or became very psychotic.
In the mid 90’s, sentencing guidelines changed and more and more criminals were housed in prisons for longer stays. The newly built psychiatric wards were quickly converted into dormitories, and the number of patients overwhelmed the doctors and therapy programs. Therapy sessions that did occur often took place outside, with each “at risk” inmate squatting in a tiny cage, according to Michael Montgomery, an investigative reporter for California Watch who has been reporting on this story for years. In the written decision, Kennedy noted:
“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.’”