Judges Threaten To Hold Governor In Contempt For Ignoring Prison Health Care Crisis

A panel of federal judges in California lambasted Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Thursday, for attempting to end judicial oversight of inmate health care and refusing to reduce dangerous overcrowding in state prisons. The panel found his lack of action was unconstitutional and presented a public health risk — and could lead to Brown being found in contempt of court.

Under the ruling — which the Brown Administration will appeal — California will have to submit a plan outlining how it proposes to reach safe inmate population levels within 21 days. The decision expands on another judge’s ruling last week that court oversight of California prison health care should not end considering the state’s inability to provide inmates with appropriate mental health care due to overcrowding.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled less than two years ago that California was failing to meet constitutional standards prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment due to rampant prison overcrowding and the resulting inadequate medical services. Brown and other California officials have argued that their efforts to address the issue have been sufficient, and that they should no longer be forced by courts to meet the population standards since the problem has basically been solved:

Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, criticized the judges’ decision in a prepared statement.


“The truth of the matter is that California has invested more than a billion dollars to transform its prison health care system into one of the best in the country,” her statement said. “Our prisons now provide timely and effective health care to inmates that far exceeds what the Constitution requires.”

Currently, the prisons hold 119,542 inmates, or 149.5% of the number they were designed to hold, according to a report released this week by the corrections department.

The jurists…have ordered the state to reduce crowding to 137.5% of capacity. About 9,500 inmates would have to be removed to meet that goal.

Contrary to Hoffman’s and the Brown Administration’s rosy views on the state of California’s prison health system, the Golden State has a horrible record of providing sufficient services to prisoners. That’s particularly significant for the medically vulnerable prison population, which is comprised of a disproportionate number of minorities and low-income Americans — 37 percent of whom have chronic diseases, 65 to 80 percent of whom have struggled with substance abuse, and 13 percent of whom suffer from severe mental illness. With state cuts to mental health funding and California’s bursting prison population, prisons have also turned into de facto asylums, perpetuating cycles of mental illness and poverty in minority populations while enshrining stigma against ex-convicts and mental patients.