Calif. prisoner reduction upheld

High court says conditions violate inmates’ rights

Inmates in California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in an undated image. Justices split along ideological lines. Inmates in California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in an undated image. Justices split along ideological lines. (California Department of Corrections via Associated Press/ File)
By Adam Liptak
New York Times / May 24, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, ordering the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that broke along ideological lines, described a prison system that failed to deliver minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems and produced “needless suffering and death.’’

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito filed vigorous dissents. Scalia called the order “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.’’ Alito said “the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California.’’

The majority opinion included photographs of inmates crowded into open gymnasium-style rooms and what Kennedy described as “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets’’ used to house suicidal inmates.

Suicide rates in the state’s prisons, Kennedy wrote, have been 80 percent higher than the national average. A lower court in the case said it was “an uncontested fact’’ that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.’’

Yesterday’s ruling in the case affirmed an order by a special three-judge federal court requiring state officials to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity. There have been more than 160,000 inmates in the system in recent years, and there are now more than 140,000.

Prison release orders are rare and difficult to obtain, and even advocates for prisoners’ rights said yesterday’s decision was unlikely to have a significant impact around the nation.

State officials in California will have two years to comply with the order, and they may ask for more time. Kennedy emphasized that the reduction in population need not be achieved solely by releasing prisoners early. Among the other possibilities, he said, are new construction, transfers out of state, and using county facilities.

The court’s four more liberal members — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan — joined Kennedy’s opinion.

The special court’s decision, issued in 2009, addressed two consolidated class-action suits, one filed in 1990, the other in 2001. The majority seemed persuaded that the passage of time required the courts to act.

Scalia summarized his dissent, which was pungent and combative, from the bench. Oral dissents are rare; this was the second of the term.

Scalia wrote that the majority opinion was an example of the problem of courts overstepping their constitutional authority rather than addressing legal violations one by one.

He added that the prisoners receiving inadequate care were not necessarily the ones who would be released early.

In his statement from the bench, Scalia said that the prisoners to be released “are just 46,000 happy-go-lucky felons fortunate enough to be selected.’’ (The justices used varying numbers in describing the number of affected prisoners. California’s prison population has been declining.)

Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia’s dissent.

In a second dissent, Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, addressed what he said would be the inevitable impact of the majority decision on public safety in California.

Alito acknowledged that “particular prisoners received shockingly deficient medical care.’’ But, he added, “such anecdotal evidence cannot be given undue weight’’ in light of the sheer size of California’s prison system, which was at its height “larger than that of many medium-sized cities’’ such as Bridgeport, Conn.; Eugene, Ore.; and Savannah, Ga.

“I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner-release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims,’’ Alito wrote. “I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.’’

In action yesterday, the court refused to take sides in a long-running, billion-dollar dispute between two defense contractors and the government over a canceled contract for a Navy plane.

The high court unanimously threw out court decisions that would have helped the federal government, as well as the Boeing Co. and General Dynamics, the companies that were supposed to build 850 A-12 Avenger attack planes for the military.

The A-12 Avenger attack plane was canceled by the Pentagon in 1991 based on claims that the companies failed to meet the terms of the contract. The A-12 was more than 18 months behind schedule and at least $1 billion over budget when it was canceled.

The justices also turned down an appeal from Guantanamo detainees who fear they may be tortured or jailed if they are released from the US naval base in Cuba. They rejected a plea from dozens of detainees who say they should have 30 days’ advance notice to challenge their transfer to countries where they have a reasonable fear of torture, or even continued confinement.