American families struggling with their own health insurance might have trouble understanding how a convicted criminal can get a free pass from prison because of inadequate healthcare. But the federal trial judges' panel in San Francisco that ordered the release said there was absolutely no other practical way to fix the constitutional problem.
If the prisoner plaintiffs in California win their case before the Supreme Court -- by no means a done deal -- it could encourage an explosion of such cases across the country where many U.S. states are struggling with reduced revenues and crowded prisons.
Americans would be even less enthralled if tens of thousands of convicted felons in a number of states were released to become their friends and neighbors.
But California, which has the largest state prison system in the United States with 165,000 inmates, has the worst overcrowding problem and has been fighting a budget crisis for years. Lawyers for state inmates argue inadequate medical care is "cruel and unusual" punishment banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"California's inmate population has far exceeded the design capacity of the state's prison system for over 25 years," the San Francisco judges panel said.
Relying on a special master's report and other studies, the three-judge panel found by "October 2006, the state's adult prisons, excluding camps, were operating at 200.2 percent design capacity" (in other words, twice as many inmates as the facilities were designed to hold) "with 162,792 inmates. ... As of Aug. 27, 2008, the population of these institutions was reduced to 195.9 percent design capacity with 156,352 inmates, largely as a result of shipping several thousand prisoners to Mississippi and other contract states. ... The current level of crowding far exceeds even the maximum safe and reasonable capacity of the California prison system, which, by (the California system's) own determination, is 179 percent design capacity for prisons holding male prisoners."
The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried several times to ease the problem before the current court case. In April earlier this year, the governor proposed turning over dental, medical and psychiatric care in the state's 33 prisons to the University of California. State officials argued the change would improve care and save the state about $12 billion in the next decade, mainly by reducing prison staff, Southern California Public Radio reported.
In 2006, Schwarzenegger declared a state emergency due to prison overcrowding, which allowed prison officials to transfer nearly 8,000 inmates out of state, despite the increased cost.
The measures were not enough to stave off inmate suits, and a number of such suits were consolidated to form the class-action case before the San Francisco panel.
In making its order, the three-judge panel pointed to the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which allows civil legal actions "with respect to prison conditions."
"In fact, a number of courts have entered consent decrees for prisoner release since the enactment of the PLRA -- decrees that must meet the same set of requirements as any order entered by a court," the panel said. But the act makes prisoner release orders "the remedy of last resort."
One of those actions occurred in November 2007 when U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall gave Cook County, Ill., 45 days to come up with ways to ease overcrowding.
"This is no longer a budget problem," she told county officials. "It is a constitutional violation."
A month before, Northwestern's Roderick MacArthur Justice Center reported, more 580 men in the Cook County jail were forced to sleep on floors, conditions that spiked a rise in CA-MRSA, a deadly staph infection strain.
California's prison crowding was spurred by decades "of tough-on-crime laws coupled with a failure to finance prison programs (that) have left prisoners stacked three bunks high in prison gymnasiums and hallways throughout the state," The New York Times reported last June. The "tough-on-crime" laws included the three strikes law -- conviction of a third felony brings an automatic sentence of 25 years to life. The law accounts for about a fourth of California inmates.
The San Francisco judges panel said California's governor "has proclaimed that crowding in prisons constitutes an emergency that poses a substantial risk to (correctional) staff, inmates and the general public, and that 'immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm caused by California's severe prison overcrowding.' ... Because crowding is the primary cause of the state's inability to provide its inmates with constitutionally adequate medical and mental healthcare, an order requiring a reduction in prison population is the most obvious and direct method by which to bring the California prison system into constitutional compliance."
The panel said it concluded "the constitutional deficiencies in the California prison system's medical and mental health system cannot be resolved in the absence of a prisoner release order. Clear and convincing evidence establishes that none of the available alternatives to such an order ... can bring the California prison system into constitutional compliance within a reasonable period of time."
The three-judge panel's order gave the state 45 days in which to "provide the court with a population reduction plan that will in no more than two years reduce the population of the ... adult institutions to 137.5 percent of their combined design capacity."
Most analysts said that meant California would have to release at least 46,000 inmates, about a fourth of its prison population.
The panel invited state officials to move for a stay while they appealed to the Supreme Court. State officials did so, and the high court said it would hear argument early in the 2010 term, which begins on the first Monday in October.
In the larger universe of putting criminals behind bars, as earlier noted, California's is the largest system in the United States, which itself holds more prisoners than any other country in the world.
King's College, London, says U.S. prisons hold nearly 2.2 million, compared to No. 2 China, with a prison population of 1.62 million.
National Public Radio reports on the local level, 16 county jails were overcrowded in the sense that they held more than 100 percent of capacity. Two Florida jails, in Lee and Polk counties, had jails operating at up to 131 percent capacity.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the U.S. Justice Department, said 24 states had decreases in their prison populations in 2009 while 26 states had increases.