The three-judge panel has thrown down a bold ruling in the Plata/Coleman v. Schwarzenegger battle. The legal triumvirate consists of United States District Judges Lawrence Karlton, Thelton Henderson and Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
Their ruling mandates that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) must comply with the minimal constitutional required standards for the mental and physical health care of every inmate housed in prison. The judges also ordered CDCR to lighten its load by reducing the body count by approximately 40,000, to a percentile capacity of 136.0 to 137.5 percent. Judges Henderson, Reinhardt, and Karlton ultimately found prison overcrowding to be CDCR’s primary cause for their severe and continuous medical violations.
Former San Quentin Warden Jeanne Woodford, who worked for S.Q. for 27 years and as acting Secretary of CDCR, was among the panel of experts who testified that she “absolutely believes that the primary cause [of medical problems] is overcrowding.” Woodford further stated, “I think it’s unbelievable that in this state we have the kind of overcrowded conditions that we have; that we do little or nothing to prepare people for the return to society.”
Joseph Lehman, who has 35 years of corrections experience with 15 combined years as head of corrections in Pennsylvania, Washington, and Maine said in his August 15, 2008 report that, “crowding” ‘is the primary cause’ of the inability to provide medical and mental health services. “It’s overwhelming the system both in terms of sheer numbers, in terms of the space available, in terms of providing health care.”
On January 23, 2008 the court appointed J. Kelso as the Plata/Coleman Receiver. Kelso reviewed inmate deaths to determine whether they were preventable. In 2007, of the 110 deaths not the result of homicide or self-inflicted injuries, 44 deaths (40 percent) were found to be preventable or potentially preventable.
Doctor Robert Shansky stated in his report that, “ CDCR’s medical care delivery system cannot provide a constitutional level of care because the prison system incarcerates more prisoners than can be adequately treated.”
Doctor Craig Haney followed in his report by saying, “This overwhelming overcrowding problem has incapacitated the system’s ability to deliver constitutionally adequate health care.”
Doctor Pablo Stewart, a licensed psychiatrist with over 22 years of experience in correctional psychiatry, testified on the nature of constitutional violations. He cited “inadequate suicide monitoring and prevention, inability to timely access appropriate levels of care, inability to access mental health care clinicians due to shortage, and inadequate medication management practices.”
Prison overcrowding pushes wardens to choose which emergency situation takes place over the others such as the recent riot in a Kentucky prison and at Chino’s Medium A prison yard here in California. Events such as these make health care less of a priority. Added to the fact that double and tripled bunk beds automatically produce less and less space.
This forces prison officials to go outside the norms and use empty spaces, hallways, and gymnasiums. Structures not designed to be used by humans as “living pens.” Such usage is not approved under California building and safety codes. These makeshift housing zones quickly become cramped, unsanitary and toxic and the continuous understaffing potentially makes these living quarters volatile for the inmate.
This modality of prison “un-health care” ultimately effects those housed there as well as prison staff. These correctional officers leave their shifts possibly carrying staph infections such as influenza, tuberculosis and viruses like “H1N1”, home to their own families and friends.
THE COURT’S DECISION
In making their ruling the judges weighed many different measures to stop the problem but found them lacking. They did not accept the defense’s theory that the population reduction order might have a negative effect on public safety.
Also, various plans endorsed by the Governor were looked at which would subtract numbers from the prison population without playing Russian roulette with public safety. Measures studied included sentencing reform, good behavior credits, an increase in prison rehabilitation programs, and diversion of low risk offenders and technical parole violators.
Continuing on in this vein, the defendants argued that; resources in the community would not be able to handle the influx of released prisoners.
The court rejected this argument. The panel calculated this based on expert opinions, that releasing inmates would not have a major effect on the population of local jail facilities.
In addition, the judges said that supervision of parolees would not be affected because many of the ordeals related to parole arise from improper channeling of funds. This was pointed out especially concerning low-risk parolees and technical violations.
Judges Henderson, Reinhardt and Karlton also rejected the idea that resources for rehabilitation and reentry would be taxed by prison population reduction. The tribunal reasoned that a financial windfall of savings from reducing prison overcrowding could be used in a positive manner.
They suggested creating more needed programs geared toward public safety, such as more rehabilitation and reentry programs. The panel found no evidence connecting early releases with a rise in crime statistics. Evidence put forth to the court by experts noted that several other states have adopted “prison overcrowding reduction measures without harming public safety.”
The judges also denied the defendants’ request to exclude mentally-ill inmates from the release order. However they did agree that some could do better being cared for and treated inside prison. They found that most health care treatments would cost less and produce more effective results outside of prison.
After the decision was rendered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation stated its intent to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The battle could take months and even years to resolve.
In reviewing the court’s decision, as a team each justice used a plethora of evidenced based expert information. And wielded focused judicial precision by sticking to and supporting every legal standard of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Although, the most intensive opposition was the timing of events around the ruling.
The Federal court decision came days after Governor Schwarzenegger unveiled his own reduction strategy involving 23, 000 inmates.
But the court used the defendants’ own experts and plans to pump up their decision. The court decreed that prison overcrowding has become a catastrophic sickness with only one undeniable remedy, reduction of the population.
It is apparent; the inmate explosion is a financial negative in every section of CDCR. It has been most harshly felt by California’s prisoners, who have for 14 years received unconstitutional physical and mental health care.