California Is Facing More Woes in Prisons

California Is Facing More Woes in Prisons

Dianne Frazee-Walker

California’s prison system is one of the largest in the country. At the beginning of 2013, the state housed 199,000 inmates. The California prison population is facing a major crisis. The prison population is 50% over what the prison system is safely equipped to hold. Some California prisons are at 180% over capacity. A goal of reducing the overflow to 137.5% was requested by federal courts in January with a 6-month deadline.

Presently, California prisons continue to be in a dismal predicament.

For the last two years, Governor Jerry Brown has been rejecting the United States Supreme Court’s orders to release low-risk inmates to lower the prison population. His reasoning for not reaching federal regulations is his concern for public safety.

The consequences of Brown’s unwillingness to conform are compounding the prison overpopulation problem.

The California prison overcrowding dilemma is causing a multitude of other issues.

Inmates are subject to space predicaments and health threats. Pictures of inmates sleeping on the floor are being used as court evidence of inhumane treatment. There are not enough doctors and mental health practitioners to take care of the overload of physically and mentally ill patients.

Inmates are feeling the impact of overcrowding and are responding by protesting. 

Solitary confinement is being used as a holding cell for months while inmates are waiting to be processed. Mentally-ill inmates are confused about the procedure and are going crazy wondering what is happening to them. This punitive living condition is also widely used to confine gang members. Inmates can be held in isolation as long as decades.

Prisoner advocates and lawyers are recognizing that the solitary confinement situation in California prisons is getting out of hand.

Last Sunday marked the second week inmates were on a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement policy. Twice as many inmates are participating in the hunger strike as two years ago. 30,000 inmates refused state-mandated meals on the first day of the protest. Four days later, about 12,000 inmates are still holding out. 

Inadequate health care is another outcome of California’s prison overcrowding.

Prison overpopulation puts prisoners at risk of contracting deadly diseases. Federal courts have ordered the release of nearly 10,000 inmates and asked for the transfer of 2,600 other inmates that are at risk of contracting coccidioidomycosis, also known as Valley Fever.

A horrendous report of nearly 150 women inmates over the last ten years being forced into sterilization has initiated an investigation by California lawmakers.  

Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lead federal lawyer for pending solitary confinement litigation, is frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm on behalf of the state to rectify the quandaries of the California prison system. Even with pressure from federal courts, prison officials are erratic about making changes within the penal system.

Two years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California prisons are violating the Eighth Amendment because of the cruel and unusual conditions of California prisons, a result of prison overpopulation.

Federal courts are interpreting Brown’s unresponsiveness to the atrocious environment of the prisons as one step shy of outright defiance.

Brown has been held in contempt of court for his failure to release prisoners by the Supreme Court judge. The governor has appealed court orders twice, claiming he has made significant changes to the system, but continues to use the public safety issue as an excuse.  

Jeffery Beard, a state corrections commissioner, brushed off the hunger strike as manipulation by prison gangs to prove how powerful they are. He dismissed the seriousness of dysfunctions within the prison system.

Mr. Beard and Governor Brown insisted that medical and mental health care has made significant progress. They compared California’s overcrowding problem to other prisons throughout the state that double-bunk to diminish the problem. Beard also proclaimed solitary confinement methods were in the process of being revamped, but the hunger strike was hindering the progress.

Mr. Lobel described Beard and Brown’s justifications as ludicrous.

James W. Marquart, a former Texas prison official who has testified for California in court cases, said that when Texas faced similar federal lawsuits, it “made the changes and got on with it.” He believes California needs to give in and follow Texas’s response to prison problems before the state goes broke from fees accrued by continuous legal battles.

Editor’s Note: supports prison reform, however, it does not advocate active or passive resistance to legitimate authority.