Wednesday Writs: Brown v. Plata and Prison Reform Edition
L 1: Of all the many social justice causes permeating American discourse, few illicit less sympathy than that of the incarcerated. Because they are bad people, right? So who cares if they are hungry or uncomfortable, or sick, or unsafe. They should’ve thought of that before they hurt someone, or stole something, or became addicted, or sold drugs. But, like it or not, prisoners do have rights.
A series of cases in California, beginning with the class action suit of Coleman v. Brown in the early 90s, led the courts to order the California prison system to correct substandard conditions. Among the issues was inadequate or non-existent mental health treatment. Some mentally ill inmates without care became catatonic, hallucinated, or killed themselves. In 2001, Plata v. Brown brought to light the extremely lacking medical care, with an estimated 1 inmate dying every 6 days by preventable causes. Despite orders by the court to fix the issues, by 2007, the situation had seen very little improvement, and in fact had begun to deteriorate even further. What progress had been made was drowned in the rising inmate population; rooms that once facilitated programs meant to help the incarcerated were now filled with bunks. Medical staff was inadequate, both in quality and quantity; the corrections setting was not conducive to attracting top medical talent or retaining even the mediocre. Basic practices like sanitation and sterilization were not followed, and coupled with the extreme overpopulation, led to high incidences of communicable disease.
The Coleman and Plata plaintiffs sought further court intervention in the failures of the system to comply with the orders in their respective cases, citing overcrowding as the main factor driving the deplorable conditions. A three judge panel heard the two cases in a single consolidated hearing. The result was an order that the prison system in California take action to reduce the over-capacity problem- down to 137% of capacity rather than the roughly 200% where it stood then- within two years. The Order did not dictate whether the remedy had to be in the form of new construction or in a reduction of the population, but the short time constraints seemed to favor the latter. To meet the new low cap would require the release of 46,000 prisoners. The state appealed to SCOTUS, in Brown, et. al, v. Plata, et. al., our case of the week.
Justice Kennedy wrote the 5-4 decision, which broke along predictable liberal/conservative lines. Kennedy began by pointing out two obvious truths: 1) most prisoners are incarcerated as a result of their own actions, and 2) are dependent on the state for food, clothing, and medical care. He opined that to deny adequate medical care was no different than denying food, as both could lead to death. Therefore, he wrote, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.” He went on to explain that “Courts may not allow constitutional violations to continue simply because a remedy would involve intrusion into the realm of prison administration,” a function normally left to the states.
In analyzing whether the order of the lower court was proper in the scope of its dictates, the majority opinion looked to the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996. The PLRA was enacted in response to growing litigation by prisoners, much of which concerned the conditions within the prisons. The Act was intended to reduce and limit litigation, and the discretion of the federal courts in telling states how to run their corrections system. As the Court recognized, federal law specifically addresses lawsuits about overcrowding, setting forth the parameters of when a court may order a reduction in prisoner population. First, such an order can only be issued by a three judge panel- which can only be convened if less drastic remedial measures have failed after a reasonable amount of time. Then, the panel must find by clear and convincing evidence that the plaintiff has shown that a constitutional violation has occurred as a result of over crowding, and that no other remedy will offer relief. Furthermore, the relief must be “narrowly tailored” to address the specific violation.
Plata et. al., believed they made the requisite showing and that the order was proper under the circumstances; the defendants argued that the three-judge panel should never have been convened. According to the state, the court should have allowed additional time for them to remedy the situation and comply with the previous orders. The SCOTUS opinion points out that the Coleman and Plata orders were 12 and 5 years old, respectively, giving the state of California ample time to comply.
The Court then gave deference to the lower court’s factual findings and opinion that nothing but lessening the overcrowding would correct the problems at hand in California’s prisons.
In one facility, staff cared for 7,525 prisoners in space designed for one-third as many. Staff operate out of converted storage rooms, closets, bathrooms, shower rooms, and visiting centers. These makeshift facilities impede the effective delivery of care and place the safety of medical professionals in jeopardy, compounding the difficulty of hiring additional staff.
This shortfall of resources relative to demand contributes to significant delays in treatment. Mentally ill prisoners are housed in administrative segregation while awaiting transfer to scarce mental health treatment beds for appropriate care. One correctional officer indicated that he had kept mentally ill prisoners in segregation for “ ‘6 months or more.’ ” Other prisoners awaiting care are held in tiny, phone-booth sized cages. The record documents instances of prisoners committing suicide while awaiting treatment.
Delays are no less severe in the context of physical care. Prisons have backlogs of up to 700 prisoners waiting to see a doctor. A review of referrals for urgent specialty care at one prison revealed that only 105 of 316 pending referrals had a scheduled appointment, and only 2 had an appointment scheduled to occur within 14 days. Urgent specialty referrals at one prison had been pending for six months to a year.
The Court cited the testimony of several experts, most of them former high-ranking prison officials in California and other states, who blamed overcrowding for a majority of the worst conditions faced in prisons, including violence and suicides in addition to mental and physical health problems. The state also argued that reducing the prisoner population was not the least drastic remedy, citing new construction plans to alleviate pressure. However, given California’s budgetary issues, the Court was not persuaded:
The common thread connecting the State’s proposed remedial efforts is that they would require the State to expend large amounts of money absent a reduction in overcrowding. The Court cannot ignore the political and fiscal reality behind this case. California’s Legislature has not been willing or able to allocate the resources necessary to meet this crisis absent a reduction in overcrowding. There is no reason to believe it will begin to do so now, when the State of California is facing an unprecedented budgetary shortfall…. Without a reduction in overcrowding, there will be no efficacious remedy for the unconstitutional care of the sick and mentally ill in California’s prisons.
Next, the state argued that the lower court’s order was too broad, not narrowly tailored to address only the specific constitutional violation, because it would affect healthy inmates as well. The Court rejected the argument, reasoning that it was narrow in the problem it was addressing, not the population affected, and even if it wasn’t, healthy prisoners were at risk of becoming ill at any time due to the conditions.
The state’s next argument was the threat to public safety posed by the release of prisoners. But as Kennedy pointed out, the panel spent ten days of the trial on that very issue. Experts for the prisoners testified about the deleterious effects of the overcrowded conditions on prisoners, who will eventually be released, which included antisocial behavior and increased rates of recidivism. On the contrary, the testimony was that less crowded prisons are more conducive to the type of rehabilitative programs that reduce recidivism and increase a former inmate’s chances for a productive life. On the whole, the panel concluded that the effect on public safety was a net positive.
Unsurprisingly, Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Thomas. Calling the lower court’s order “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history”, Scalia lamented that the bulk of the 46,000 inmates who could be released as part of the mandate to reduce the overcrowding would not be among the sick, but rather “fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.” Because not every inmate imprisoned in California was sick, Scalia did not believe the matter was a systemic deficiency violating the Eighth Amendment:
…the notion that the plaintiff class can allege an Eighth Amendment violation based on “systemwide deficiencies” is assuredly wrong. It follows that the remedy decreed here is also contrary to law, since the theory of systemic unconstitutionality is central to the plaintiffs’ case.
He did not feel that what he viewed only as potential constitutional violations in the system warranted the drastic order of the lower court. And while he conceded that the lower court devoted significant time on the issue of public safety, he nonetheless disregarded their findings in that regard as fanciful and took issue with calling their conclusions “factual findings”. In fact, Scalia seemed to deem every judicial determination which supported the inmate’s position a “policy judgment” rather than an evidence based finding. (Notably, Scalia goes on to mention “the inevitable murders, robberies, and rapes to be committed by the released inmates” as though this, too, were a factual finding.)
Justice Alito wrote a separate dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, in which he took issue with what he viewed as an impermissible foray into the administration of a state penal system by the judiciary. Like Scalia, Alito disagreed with a system-wide remedy to address the complaints of two individuals. Alito proposed a slew of small improvements, such as better sterilization practices, record keeping, new equipment, and higher salaries for the staff as less drastic alternatives to the release of prisoners, assuming, apparently, that none of these solutions had been considered or implemented unsuccessfully in the 12 years since the Coleman suit. He expressed his grave misgivings about the danger to society presented by the release of prisoners, and expressed his belief that longer incarcerations reduce crime rates, which, he reasoned, must mean the opposite is true.
L2: Prompting this week’s Case of the Week was this plan by the West Virginia prison system to charge inmates $3 an hour to read, which will, of course, be 95% corporate profit.
L3: On the positive side of the issue, 39 prosecutors have agreed to spend some time touring their local jails and prisons, to be better informed about the consequences of their prosecutorial decisions.
L4: Adnan Sayed, convicted as a teenager of murdering his girlfriend, gained national notoriety and a following of supporters when the podcast “Serial” explored his case a few years ago. SCOTUS just denied his efforts to obtain a new trial.
L5: SCOTUS also declined to take up the National Review’s effort to end a lawsuit against them by a climate scientist, prompting an angry dissent by Justice Alito.
L6: Should former servicemen dishonorably discharged have their “bad paper” upgraded if PTSD is to blame? This vet thinks so.
L7: Ben and Jerry’s are being sued by a customer who says the company’s ice cream is not made from the milk of happy cows, as advertised.
L8: A judge in Utah will decide whether lewd behavior charges against a woman- for being topless in her own home– is unfair, since her equally topless husband was standing right next to her at the time.
L9: David Shapiro, Harvard Law professor, brilliant legal mind and an expert in the field of federal jurisdiction, passes away at 87.
L10: Nice try, dumb criminal of the week, but that “Don’t Drink and Drive” bumper sticker didn’t fool anybody.