Supreme Court Orders California to Reduce Its Prison Population, Address Civil Rights Violations

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that overcrowding in California prisons, which has led to grossly unsanitary conditions and inadequate access to medical and mental health care, violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

California state prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but in recent years have housed more than twice that number. Overcrowding has led to high rates of preventable suicides, high rates of prisoners suffering from psychosis, outbreaks of serious and communicable diseases, and deaths due to neglect. The decision in Brown v. Plata upholding a lower court order to relieve prison overcrowding in California could result in the state releasing more than 30,000 prisoners or transferring prisoners to county or out-of-state prisons.

“For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result.”

An amicus brief submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and others argued that a state’s failure to provide appropriate medical and mental health care to prisoners constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Further, failure to provide prisoners with medical and mental  health care is a violation of international law and the conditions in California prisons are prohibited by human rights treaties that the U.S. has ratified, such as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights. 

“The Supreme Court has done the right thing by acknowledging what even the state itself has not disputed — that the egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons contributes to a failure by the state to keep its prisoners safe by providing the basic levels of medical and mental health care mandated by the U.S. Constitution,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, in a statement. “Reducing the number of people in prison not only would save state taxpayers half a billion dollars annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities.”