Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Are California prisons "cruel and unusual?"

December 6, 2010 by Donald Applestein Esq.


Last week a case was argued before the Supreme Court which directly calls to mind the old adage, “Justice delayed, is justice denied.”  The matter of Plata v. Schwarzenegger is about as complicated and drawn out as any.  This litigation involves two cases that were combined; one that has pended for 20 years and the other, 9 years.  They involve the explosive issue of court-ordered prisoner releases.

To briefly summarize (if that is possible) this case involves multiple District Court hearings and over 70 Orders.  The first case, Coleman v. Schwarzenegger was filed in 1990 and alleged that California was not providing adequate prisoner mental health care in violation of the Eighth Amendment and federal disability statutes. Plata was filed in 2001 alleging violation of Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).  It asserted that inmates were denied appropriate medical care as a result of prison overcrowding, in violation the Eighth Amendment and the PLRA.

Factually, the California prison population was 197% over of its design capacity.  Among other things, Plata alleged:

  • Delayed or failure to provide access to medical care
  • Untimely responses to emergencies
  • Insufficient medical staff
  • Lack of quality control procedures
  • Inadequate medical record keeping
  • Prison staff interferences with medical care

Reportedly, these shortcomings resulted in 34 inmate deaths, along with other deprivations.

During the pendency of the combined case, there were innumerous administrative and judicial hearings, reports and orders, and a declaration of a State of Emergency by the governor stating that California did not have the money to deal with the situation.  Two separate commissions found unacceptable overcrowding and recommended prisoner reductions.  On the judicial side, a District Court ordered the convening of a three-judge panel (as provided for under the PLRA).  On the panel were the two judges who had heard the two cases at the District Court level and an appellant court judge.  The panel eventually ordered the State to submit a plan for a reduction of the population to 137.5% of capacity, within two years.  The panel factually found that a substantial number of prisoners could be released without affecting public safety. There followed submissions and resubmissions of plans.  Finally in January, 2010, a plan was submitted, accepted by the panel and the court entered an Order for its implementation.  California appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear this matter.

The issues before the Court are numerous and complex.  They involve convoluted jurisdictional and procedure matters and factual determinations – for example, does the Supreme Court even have jurisdiction to hear this case, were all the requirements of the PLRA met in rending the final order for implementation, did the panel’s order exceed its authority?

Putting aside all the technical legal mumbo jumbo, you decide, has the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” been violated?  You, “We the People” be the judge.  VOTE!

Photo credit: Flickr user timpearcelosgatos


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