“The reality on the ground is that the California prison system is vastly more overcrowded than any other state except perhaps Alabama,” Evenson said, adding that Alabama is a much smaller state. “We're out of the ballpark.”
The high court's decision backed what lower courts have been saying for decades: California prisoners are receiving woefully inadequate healthcare, and curtailing overcrowding is necessary to improve the situation. Reports have found that one prisoner dies every eight days in California because of the system's failure to deliver appropriate medical care.
The Supreme Court ruled that prison overcrowding violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
“For years, the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners' basic health needs,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result.” And while calling the remedy “of unprecedented sweep and extent,” Kennedy wrote, “so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.”
The decision affirms a 2009 ruling by a special panel of three federal judges ordering the state to cap its prison population at 137% of capacity. The panel, stemming from class-action lawsuits filed in 1990 and 2001, noted that inmates are “forced to wait months or years for medically necessary appointments and examinations.”
Today, more than 143,000 inmates are housed in 33 facilities across California designed to house fewer than 80,000 people.
Steps have been taken over the years to improve medical treatment. In 2005, a federal receivership was established to revamp care at the state's prisons. Ambitious plans were made to build new hospitals across the state and refurbish existing facilities. But those plans ran afoul of state budget woes and wound up in court.
In June 2010, a more modest plan was approved, including a $900 million, 1,722-bed medical and mental health facility to be built in Stockton, Calif. The current receiver, J. Clark Kelso, said in a news release that the Supreme Court decision “has provided the state with clear direction.” He added that “prisons with severe overcrowding issues are where we continue to have difficulty in meeting federal court mandates.”
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last month to reduce prison populations by 39,000 inmates by transferring certain nonviolent offenders to county jails, but he must figure out a way to pay for the shift amid a severe budget crisis.
Writing for the minority, Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history,” adding that the order to reduce overcrowding is “gambling with the safety of the people of California.”