Prison Overcrowding in California: Time is Running Out
The prison system in California is severely overpopulated, resulting in inhuman conditions. The prison population has grown from 76,000 in 1988 to nearly 170,000 today, in a system that is designed to hold 80,000.
In 2001, The Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif., filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that California prisons were in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishment.” The case was consolidated with another case and assigned to a three-judge court panel in federal court. Following a lengthy trial, the three federal judges determined that serious overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons was the “primary cause” for violations of the Eighth Amendment. An order to reduce the prison population was entered on January 12, 2010. The court ordered the release of enough prisoners so the inmate population would come within 137.5 percent of the prisons’ total design capacity. That amounts to between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates being released. California appealed the order to the Supreme Court.
On November 30, 2010, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case. The legal question presented by the appeal is the following: Does a court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to remedy unconstitutional conditions in its correctional facilities violate the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act? The broader question is this: What type of society are we to treat our fellow human beings in such a callous and barbaric manner?
Reducing prison overcrowding also has practical benefits. We now understand—in psychology and related disciplines—that powerful social contexts like prison can have real consequences for the people who enter them. When prison environments become unduly painful, they also become harmful, and prisoners carry the effects or consequences of that harm back into the free world once they have been released. Thus, bad prisons are not only unpleasant or uncomfortable; they can be destructive as well.
The Supreme Court’s decision will have a great impact on the future of prison conditions in this country. A decision is expected within the next few months.
What would Dostoyevsky say about our prisons?