Court Order Reaffirms That California’s Prison Crisis Is Not Over

Less than two years ago, California’s prisons were deemed so overcrowded and underserved by the U.S. Supreme Court that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment. The ruling affirmed the repeated and unresolved findings of lower courts over some 17 years, and renewed the order for continued court monitoring. But Gov. Jerry Brown (D) had enough. He declared in January that the prison emergency is “over,” reasoning that further improvements would “gold-plate our prisons.”

At the time, California hadn’t complied with court-mandated improvements to mental health care treatment and population reductions, and documents filed by the plaintiffs showed that the Brown administration had suppressed a report on a spate of inmate suicides and improperly interviewed inmates without notice or consent to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. So it’s no surprise that a federal judge formally rejected Brown’s request Friday to end court supervision:

[F]or over a decade a disproportionately high number of inmates have committed suicide in California’s prison system. Review of these suicides shows a pattern of identifiable and describable inadequacies in suicide prevention in the CDCR. Defendants have a constitutional obligation to take and adequately implement all reasonable steps to remedy those inadequacies. The evidence shows that they have not yet done so. In addition, while defendants represent that they have fully implemented their suicide prevention program they have not. An ongoing constitutional violation therefore remains. […]

Systemic failures persist in the form of inadequate suicide prevention measures, excessive administrative segregation of the mentally ill, lack of timely access to adequate care, insufficient treatment space and access to beds, and unmet staffing needs.


As Andrew Cohen lays out in the Atlantic, it wasn’t that California couldn’t comply with the court order; it’s that it decided that it would be easier not to. Rather than hiring more psychiatrists and following the other specific mental health recommendations made by professional consultants, California sought to prove that its prisons were adequate without the improvements, by interviewing inmates without their lawyers’ knowledge or consent and then, as Judge Lawrence Karlton put it, “used the information they gleaned from the inmates against the inmates, in support of their motion to terminate and vacate the injunction.” California has come a long way toward reducing prison overcrowding since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, although they are facing difficult barriers in making further reductions without reform to the state’s criminal laws or a special court order. On this point, the Brown administration has asked for a different court’s help in allowing them to waive existing laws, and they are more likely to be sympathetic. The U.S. addiction to mass incarceration is not easy to reverse, even when and if California is making its best good faith efforts.