May 25, 2011
Brown v. Plata Eighth Amendment / Cruel and Unusual Punishment / Prison Overcrowding
Facts: California housed some mentally ill inmates in phone booth sized cells, left others in catatonic states, and grossly understaffed for the needs of the all mentally ill inmates. Further, California left otherwise treatable illness, diabetes, hypertension, and suicidal ideation untreated leading to the deaths of many other inmates. In one converted gym that housed inmates, the staff did not learn of an inmate's death until hours after the inmate died from injuries suffered from an assault. According to the Court's opinion, California averaged 1 inmate death every 6 or 7 days. Hence, California’s inmates filed two separated suits – one seeking relief for inmates with mental illnesses, filed in 1990, and another for inmates needing medical care, filed in 2001. California’s prisons operated at 200% of occupancy for some eleven years. Due in large part to overcrowding, the mentally ill, sick, and others needing medical care did not receive minimal, adequate care. Plaintiffs in each suit sought the extraordinary relief of court ordered reduction in the prison population after years of suffering through other court ordered remedies. In order to achieve such relief, the statute requires a separate trial in front of a three-judge panel. Each district court granted the motion for a three-judge panel, and combined the suits into one case. The three-judge panel conducted a two-week trial, and in the end, found California violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Issue: Whether the three-judge panel erred finding that overcrowding amounted to Cruel and Unusual Punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution?
Reasoning: The U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy writing for the majority, held that prison overcrowding primarily caused the substandard, and thus cruel and unusual treatment of California’s inmates. Because the overcrowding took staff and facilities away from those who suffered from mental or medical illness, the Court reasoned such depravation of basic health services amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, the Court held overcrowding primarily caused the Eight Amendment violation. Such a finding is necessary under the statute prior to moving forward with any remedy to alleviate overcrowding.
Issue: Whether any other relief will remedy the constitutional violation?
Reasoning: California argued for the “less restrictive” remedy of transferring inmates to other states, but complained the district courts slowed their plans by requiring that any facilities meet the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court found no basis that California intended to actually implement such a plan. Further, the Court found transferring inmates to other states is one method California can use to meet the Court ordered reduction, and thus, the Court also found that transfer is not a less restrictive remedy. California claimed that it could build its way out of the crisis to which the Court retorted, quoting in part the three-judge panel, “Particularly in light of California's ongoing fiscal crisis, the three-judge court deemed ‘chimerical’ any ‘remedy that requires significant additional spending by the state.’”
(chimerical: “existing only as the product of unchecked imagination; fantastically visionary or improbable.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chimerical ). The state also claimed filling vacant staff positions would be a less restrictive alternative. However, the Court found such a plan would likely bankrupt California, would not be sufficient given the vacancies do not account for additional positions needed due the ever expanding prison population, and given California’s on-going fiscal crisis, the state could not realistically implement such a plan.
Issue: Whether the three-judge panel narrowly tailored the remedy to rectify the constitutional violation?
Reasoning: California complained the order swept broader than necessary to remedy the Eighth Amendment violation. The Court reasoned, “Prisoners in the general population will become sick, and will become members of the plaintiff classes, with routine frequency; and overcrowding may prevent the timely diagnosis and care necessary to provide effective treatment and to prevent further spread of disease. Relief targeted only at present members of the plaintiff classes may therefore fail to adequately protect future class members who will develop serious physical or mental illness. Prisoners who are not sick or mentally ill do not yet have a claim that they have been subjected to care that violates the Eighth Amendment, but in no sense are they remote bystanders in California's medical care system. They are that system's next potential victims. A release order limited to prisoners within the plaintiff classes would, if anything, unduly limit the ability of State officials to determine which prisoners should be released.”
Issue: Whether the three-judge panel erred when it ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity?
Reasoning: California argued for 145% of capacity, but its own Chief Deputy of Healthcare for the prisons testified that California could not adequately care for prisoners with any population over 100%. Most other experts thought 130% would rectify the constitutional violations. The three-judge panel split the baby at 137.5%, and the Court held the record supported this finding.
Justice Alito's dissent focused on the ‘danger’ to the general populace. However, given that California’s draconian three-strikes law imprisons people from 25 years to life for attempting to steal three golf clubs, see Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), or 50 years to life for the petty offense of stealing five video tapes, see Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63 (2003), the danger to the general populace is illusory at best.