Monday, May 23, 2011

"46,000 Happy Go-Lucky Felons"

The title of this post comes verbatim from the lunatic dissents filed today in the SCOTUS case Brown v. Plata (2011), which ordered the release of 30,000 inmates from California's "unconstitutional prison system."

First, the facts:

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, ordering the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that broke along ideological lines, described a prison system that failed to deliver minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems and produced “needless suffering and death.”
From Kennedy's majority:
The degree of overcrowding in California’s prisons is exceptional. California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court’s decision the population was almost double that. The State’s prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers.

In 2006, then-Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons, as “‘immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm caused by California’s severe prison overcrowding.’” The consequences of overcrowding identified by the Governor include “‘increased, substantial risk for transmission of infectious illness’” and a suicide rate “‘approaching an average of one per week.’” Ibid.

Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for pro-longed periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets.
You need to read the opinion, replete with pictures of the torture chambers California has been using for mentally ill inmates. It also describes the deplorable conditions correctional officers have been working in the past ten years.

Basically, the majority affirmed a lower court ruling, finding the conditions of confinement to be an 8th amendment violation (something that has been well-known in California for over a decade now). It affirms in principle Estelle v. Gamble (1976), which said to deprive inmates of access to adequate health care was a violation of the 8th amendment.

The decision also affirmed a little-known section of the PLRA which allows a three-judge appellate court (and not solely a district court judge) to limit the number of inmates in a prison system. This is a delicious irony for those of us who have criticized the PLRA since day one.

What the get-tuff politicians in Congress tried to do 15 years ago was strip discretion from district court judges who monitor conditions of confinement. Since the district court is the trial (or finding of fact) court, they would have the best knowledge of conditions in a prison or jail, and they alone could issue consent decrees, TRO's, release inmates, etc. until conditions improved. The PLRA said "no more," and actually emboldened the appellate judges to go beyond their usual review status and issue "structural injunctions" themselves (a bone of contention with the dissenters, see below).

Essentially, Congress was banking on the hope that a three judge panel would never agree that an entire state prison system was being run like medieval Rome. Until now.

But the true lunacy came in the hysterical dissents of the four "lock 'em up" justices. Get a load of this, from Scalia's dissent:
Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals.
Of course, the number is nowhere near that, as the majority notes, but findings of fact aren't central to the dissenters (Alito compares the false number of 46,000 to "the equivalent of three Army divisions!").
It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order—the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended— do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation. Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.
LOL. The old revanchist, conservative argument on the "luxuries" of prison life. Them criminals have it too easy, don't they? Sitting around watching cable all day, working out in the gym, swimming in Olympic size pools? Why, they're just a bunch of "happy go-lucky felons" living the life of luxury in California prisons, ain't they?

Sorry, but not only have weight piles and workout equipment been severely curtailed in prisons over the years, but the atavistic tone Scalia takes is disappointing. He may as well have written, "watch out, California, the knuckle-draggers are getting out of prison and they're coming to get you."

As the Times notes:
“Perhaps,” [Scalia] went on, “the coda is nothing more than a ceremonial washing of the hands — making it clear for all to see, that if the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order do happen, they will be none of this court’s responsibility. After all, did we not want, and indeed even suggest, something better?”

Justice Alito acknowledged that “particular prisoners received shockingly deficient medical care.” But, he added, “such anecdotal evidence cannot be given undue weight” in light of the sheer size of California’s prison system, which was at its height “larger than that of many medium-sized cities” like Bridgeport, Conn., Eugene, Ore., and Savannah, Ga.

Don't you love it? The fact that some prisoners "anecdotally" may have been tortured, died needlessly, keeled over in their own feces, committed suicide, or been murdered certainly doesn't mean "wholesale" there are any structural problems which need to be addressed.

But the most ignominious "warning" in the dissents is the sudden concern for "public safety" and the impending crime wave that is sure to materialize.

“I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims,” Justice Alito wrote. “I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.”

I love the qualifier "in a few years," which means if it goes up next year or five years from now or even ten, they will no doubt think themselves right. With crime at an all-time low right now (and many fearing there is nowhere to go but up), critics of this decision will no doubt view any uptick in crime in California as "proof" they were right.

And like the dissents in total, they will be wrong. Crime moves up and down for a myriad of reasons, very little of it related to release from prison. No doubt the 30,000 released will be representative of the vast majority already there: low-level, non-violent, offenders.

But none of that is germane to the argument. The simple message from Kennedy et al is this: if you lock 'em up types want to engage in mass incarceration, do it in a constitutional manner. It's that simple.

But when you run a chamber of horrors instead, that's a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

UPDATE: For a great photo essay of exactly how wretched conditions are in California, go here.

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