California Pays the Price for Shortsighted Prison Policy

You may have seen that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld decisions of the lower federal courts ordering California to reduce the number of prisoners it holds to 137.5% of capacity, and to do so within two years. Right now, California has 154,000 prisoners in a system designed for 80,000 -- and this is not a temporary condition. As the decision Brown v. Plata (2011) points out, California has been operating at 200% of its capacity for eleven years. The courts have repeatedly told California that it either needs more prisons or less prisoners -- and California’s legislature seems unwilling to do anything about this.

Prisons are not supposed to be summer camp. They are places where we lock people up because they are unwilling or unable to follow the rules of civilized society. (Complicating this is that some prisoners are a major threat to other prisoners. While California Democrats like to joke about prison rape of those that they don’t like, decent people recognize that there is an obligation to protect prisoners from other prisoners.) There is a point where the circumstances are so shocking that even those who are hardliners about punishing violent crime recoil in horror.

Appendix B of Brown v. Plata contains shocking pictures of gymnasiums crammed with bunk beds where prisoners sleep. For a long time, we have recognized that circumstances like this make rape almost unavoidable, because the most brutal of felons have access to the weakest.

Because there are not enough facilities for mentally ill inmates, “suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets.” In some cases, inmates have been held in such cages “for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.”

Inmates are sometimes “held for months in administrative segregation.” (“Administrative segregation” means solitary.) Suicide rates are extremely high; “80% higher than the national average” for prisons.

California’s legislature knows that there is a problem, so why isn’t anything being done? Are California Democrats (who control both houses of the legislature) that hostile to raising taxes and spending money? Two years ago, then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown complained about what he called “an extravagant spending proposal for prison medical facilities.” The court-appointed receiver demanded that the state’s new prison medical facility include “regulation-size basketball courts, electronic bingo boards, music and art therapy rooms, and landscaping to hide fences.” Oh yes, and “yoga rooms and horticulture therapy.” Brown pointed out that all of this is “well beyond what is required by the Eighth Amendment” (the one that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment). It sounds like California might not be allowed to expand its prisons except by building something close to a luxury resort.