UPDATE: California files plan with federal court to ease prison overcrowding

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Chino State Prison is one of the state facilities that has had to reduce its inmate population to comply with a mandate from a federal court.

UPDATE 6:00 p.m.: Read the complete plan and reaction to the latest motion filed with the court below.

PREVIOUSLY: Late Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown submitted a plan to federal judges to further ease crowding in the state’s 33 prisons.

In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California, attorneys for the state warned that in order to achieve the full reductions ordered by a federal judge, it would have to change state law, dictate “the adoption of risky prison policies” and order the early release of violent and dangerous felons.

The plan includes:

    • Expansion of earned inmate credits that shorten sentences.
    • Prison-bound felons with sentences under nine months stay in county jails.
    • Expansion of realignment to include more types of felony crimes: including drug possession, second-degree burglary, vehicle theft, and forgery.
    • Expand eligibility for inmates to serve in fire camps.
    • Expand alternative custody program.
    • Slow return of 10,000 inmates serving terms out of state.
    • Increase use of contracts with private prisons, lease county jails.
    • Release inmates early.

State attorneys called all of the options “unwise” and said further reductions will “jeopardize public safety."  They also said the actions are unnecessary.
 
In a separate motion, the state once again argued that the reductions are no longer necessary and asked three federal judges to vacate the population cap they ordered three years ago.
 
"The overcrowding and healthcare conditions cited by this court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory," officials wrote in court papers.

Appearing on KPCC's Air Talk, Gov. Brown said the state has done enough to address the court's concerns: "We're not some right-wing organization. I'm concerned about prisoners [and] civil liberties. But I'm also concerned that taxpayers are diverting money — from childcare, from schools, from college scholarships — to feed into what is becoming a bloated medical care system, and paying monitors to nitpick a [penal] system that has met the constitutional test."

But Michael Bien, a private attorney who has been involved in the issue for more than a decade, says there's still a shortage of basic housing for inmates with serious or complex mental illness:

"A place to house a person safely so they don’t commit suicide.  A place where a doctor and a patient can speak privately with each other without someone listening in.  A place where medications can be tried out under nursing supervision on someone who’s psychotic."

Bien added that even the state agrees there’s a shortage of safe housing for inmates with mental problems: "That’s one of the reasons why we have one of the highest suicide rates of any state in the country—in our prison system, and guess what: It’s going up not down."

In 2009, three federal judges ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons prevented inmates from getting adequate healthcare and was contributing to, if not causing, the deaths of dozens of inmates a year.

California prisons are designed to safely hold a certain number of inmates. Back when the judges issued their order, California had packed those facilities to nearly double capacity. The judges ordered California to reduce the crowding.
 
The population dropped by tens of thousands of inmates since 2009. Attorneys for California say the state prison system now provides adequate medical care to inmates and the federal court lacks authority to compel further reductions.
 
Attorneys for the state have repeatedly argued that conditions in healthcare at California’s 33 prisons have reached constitutional standards, and that the current level of crowding – 150 percent of design capacity – does not prevent inmates from getting adequate and timely treatment.
 
California made similar arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 when it appealed the three judge’s order to reduce overcrowding to 137.5 percent of design capacity. The nation’s highest court rejected the arguments and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Sacramento native who is familiar with the conditions in California’s prisons, cast the swing vote in that ruling. Kennedy did, however, support the state’s right to seek to modify the order by allowing a higher rate of overcrowding or a longer timeline to achieve reductions. This fall, after lowering the population by another 24,000 inmates, California officials sought to have the order modified both ways.
 
The  judges called the request “premature” and asked California officials to submit a plan on how to achieve the reductions, including what state laws, if any, would need to be waived.
 
In separate papers filed Monday, attorneys with the Prison Law Office argue that “prisoners are continuing to die from inadequate medical care.”
 
They cite serious lapses in care that led to 43 deaths in 2011 that independent reviewers determined could have been prevented. They also noted a chronic shortage of staff psychiatrists has also contributed to the highest inmate suicide rate since 2006, when a federal receiver first wrested control of prison medical care from the state.

The federal receiver, Clark Kelso, declined to comment on the latest legal wrangling over the population cap.  But in an interview last Fall, Kelso said overcrowding had created a gridlock in prison healthcare: "When you get above a certain point it’s like you’re stuck in the worst Los Angeles traffic jam and everybody’s just locked in place."

Kelso saaid the state wastes a lot of resources because prisons can’t put the right people in the right bed.  A lack of long-term care beds, for example, forces the state to put inmates with relatively minor medical problems in acute care facilities.  The state then pays thousands of dollars a day to send patients who need those beds to outside hospitals.  

Kelso said state officials could soon end federal oversight of prison healthcare, but that they’d have to repair their image: "Part of getting the state out of all these cases is complying with court orders, getting the court to trust that the state can comply with court orders."

Over the past decade, Kelso said, the state has appeared unwilling to take those steps..  

California Prison Overcrowding Court Plan

California Prison Overcrowding Court Papers

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