A divided Supreme Court upheld a court-ordered release of tens of thousands of California prisoners Monday, ruling that the measure was necessary to remedy prison overcrowding and the resulting violations of inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights to medical and mental health care.
That 5-4 ruling in Brown v. Plata is one of the largest prison release orders in history, the Los Angeles Times reports.
In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed the dire conditions created by prison overcrowding.
“Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates,” Kennedy wrote. “As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.”
He also noted the abhorrent treatment of incarcerated mental health patients, some of whom are kept 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,” Kennedy said. “Prison officials explained they had ‘no place to put him.’”
He also noted substandard treatment of medical patients. “A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after a 5-week delay in referral to a specialist.” Kennedy noted. His opinion included photographs of prison condition, starting at page 51.
Kennedy acknowledged that the court-ordered release is neither a simple solution to such a complex problem, nor will it be a panacea.
“As this case illustrates, constitutional violations in conditions of confinement are rarely susceptible of simple or straightforward solutions,” Kennedy wrote. “In addition to overcrowding the failure of California’s prisons to provide adequate medical and mental health care may be ascribed to chronic and worsening budget shortfalls, a lack of political will in favor of reform, inadequate facilities, and systemic administrative failures.”
Kennedy took nearly 20 minutes to announce the ruling from the bench this morning, according to SCOTUSblog.
Then, taking the unusual move of announcing a dissent from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia began his remarks with: “Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”
In his written dissent, Scalia lambasted the majority for overstepping the Court’s boundaries. “In doing this, the Court has aggrandized itself, grasping authority that appellate courts are not supposed to have, and using it to enact a compromise solution with no legal basis other than the Court’s say-so,” Scalia wrote. “That we are driven to engage in these extralegal activities should be a sign that the entire project of permitting district courts to run prison systems is misbegotten.”