Yes, California, Your Prison Conditions Are Still Unconstitutional

CREDIT: AP Photo/California Department of Corrections

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison, Los Angeles.

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison, Los Angeles.

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California State Prison, Los Angeles.

CREDIT: AP Photo/California Department of Corrections

In 1994, a federal court found that California inmates with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. In 2005, a federal court in a different case found that the state had failed to provide adequate basic mental care in its prisons. And in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the state’s prison health care was so deficient that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

But California still hasn’t gotten the message. With this litigation still ongoing, a federal judge held Thursday that pepper spraying of mentally ill inmates is “horrific” and that solitary confinement of these inmates has got to stop without approval by a mental health clinician.

“[F]ailure to properly consider the mental state of class members requires the court to act,” wrote Judge Lawrence Karlton. “If defendants fail to meet their Eighth Amendment obligations, this court must enforce compliance.”

Despite having made these findings before, California once again deployed witnesses to testify that solitary confinement does not actually cause that much harm. And it explained that the pepper spray incidents actually comply with the state’s use of force policy, arguments that Karlton took as further proof the state’s prison policies remain drastically insufficient to fix the problem.

On video footage of the pepper spray incidents made public in November, Karlton wrote, “Most of the videos were horrific; each was illustrative of one or more of the objective components of the underlying constitutional violation found in the court’s 1995 order.”

On California’s insistence that it is just fine to subject mentally ill inmates to isolation, he said, “the foregoing findings and the overwhelming weight of evidence in the record is that placement of seriously mentally ill inmates in California’s segregated housing units can and does cause serious psychological harm, including decompensation, exacerbation of mental illness, inducement of psychosis, and increased risk of suicide.”

More than 28 percent of California’s inmates are deemed “seriously mentally ill,” a common phenomenon in an era in which prisons have supplanted asylums. But underlying California’s health care problem is not just the high proportion of mentally ill inmates; it is also its severe overcrowding. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling addressed the overcrowding issue, finding that “no other remedies” for improving medical and mental health conditions “have been found to be sufficient” other than reducing overcrowding. “Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

In light of this reasoning, it is likely still the overcrowding that is exacerbating California’s problem. In fact, Judge Karlton found that one reason mentally ill inmates are being placed in solitary confinement is because there are no other beds for them. California was ordered to reduce its population to 135 percent of capacity by last June. But it convinced courts to grant an extension, meaning it is still permitted to operate at more than 144 percent of capacity.

In the meantime, some facilities remain so overcrowded that inmates have died over unsanitary conditions that include leaving prisoners to lie in their own feces.

Despite this insistence by courts that California conditions are still cruel and unusual, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared last January that the “prison emergency is over” and that California is on the verge of “gold plat[ing]” its prisons.