California calls for courts to raise prison population cap by 7,000 inmates

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Double-tiered bunks are seen in one of the cells at a formerly closed housing unit at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, in Elk Grove, Calif. that was scheduled to be reopened to handle the increase of inmates sentenced under the new prison realignment program.

Nearly a decade ago, a federal court found that an inmate was dying each week in California prisons due to a lack of care — and that countless others suffered from neglect.

The lapses in care amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment," according to one judge, who ordered extensive improvements on the Californian prison system before prison overcrowding made the problem that much worse. The state was then ordered to reduce its prisoner population by 40,000 inmates, an order the US Supreme Court ultimately upheld. Now officials want to raise the cap.

“The federal judges ruled that when there’s too much overcrowding in the prison, we could not provide a constitutional level of health care," says Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But, Callison says, the judges overshot the mark.

In papers filed in federal court late Friday, the state argues it can provide adequate health care to 117,000 prisoners, the number of inmates it projects to reach by March of next year. That’s 7,000 more inmates more than what the court ordered.

Callison says the CDCR is confident that they will be able to provide a constitutional level of health care "across the board," even with a population level that "may well be higher."

Attorneys for the state say “an unprecedented population reduction and systemic health care improvements” render the original cap “unnecessary and legally inappropriate.” They want the court to suspend the order pending legal proceedings.

Don Specter with the Prison Law Office calls the state’s assertion “unbelievable.” He points to the court’s most recent order —which, he says, makes it clear the cap stands, for now.

“Until the court orders something different the state has to take all necessary steps to comply with the court’s previous order," Specter says.

Last year, California began shifting low-level felons to county jails under a new “realignment” plan. The state prison population has since plummeted by 24,000 inmates.

Specter says the state can easily meet next year’s June deadline for further reductions by transferring responsibility for more low-level felons to county facilities, sending more inmates to prisons in other states or giving inmates good behavior credits, thereby hastening their release.

“All of those things are readily available to the state. Giving inmates time credits would be the fastest and certainly cheapest way to comply with the order.”

In court papers state attorneys acknowledge California could comply with the court’s population cap by next December, by keeping 10,000 inmates at prisons in other states. California transferred those prisoners to reduce overcrowding, but had planned to bring 4,000 of them back next year to save an estimated $300 million.

Over the last decade California’s spent billions to improve prison medical care, offering higher wages to attract better doctors and nurses, custody officers to ensure inmates get to medical appointments and improved clinical space. The state’s now constructing what will be the largest prison health care facility in the nation — just outside of Stockton.

The legal fight over whether to alter the prison population cap could last well into next year.

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