Last Monday, in a widely publicized opinion, the Supreme Court upheld a federal court’s order that will provide some relief for overcrowded California prisons. This opinion, which has received a vast amount of media coverage, lays out the disgusting conditions that were reported to the three judge panel in the Federal District court in Brown v. Plata. While this is an enormous victory for California, it leaves one to wonder how such injustices occurred in the first place.
The record contained reports of prisoners being kept for 24 hours in “telephone booth sized cages” after the prison ran out of treatment beds for suicidal inmates, a prisoner being found in a pool of his own urine and a “nearly catatonic state,” prisoners being forced to wait up to 12 months for necessary mental health services, and prisoners dying from preventable diseases that could have been caught had the medical wards not been backlogged. As Justice Kennedy points out, a state that incarcerates a person thereby takes responsibility for that person; the state is then obliged to provide for the person, and to ensure that his or her basic needs are met and that he or she is not placed in danger.
While the order crafted in Plata will only affect prisoners in California, prison overcrowding and its resulting danger is a problem plaguing the nation. Several years ago, The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Alabama after HIV positive prisoners in Limestone Correctional Facility were denied medical care that resulted in their deaths. In Idaho, there is ongoing litigation concerning the “gladiator” practice employed by many guards where they use inmate on inmate violence to control prisoners. In Arkansas, the ACLU has challenged prison conditions in a prison whose overcrowding has caused failures to properly administer tuberculosis tests to prisoners, resulting in outbreaks of the disease.
Prisons should operate as a place for those in our society who have committed crimes to self reflect and rehabilitate themselves in order to become contributing members of society upon release. With most inmates unable to receive proper medical care, mental health resources, proper nutrition, or freedom from guard- and inmate-inflicted violence, inmates return to society traumatized by their experience—not reformed. While the Supreme Court’s upholding the order in Plata represents a giant first step in addressing this issue, there remain many more steps on the path to reforming this country’s prison systems.