Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘reform litigation

Federal Judge Will Lift Receivership Over California Prisons

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After six years in federal receivership, the California prison system is ready to be returned to state management, says federal judge Thelton Henderson. The San Francisco Chronicle explains:

When U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco appointed a receiver in February 2006 to oversee inmates’ medical treatment, he said the lack of adequate care was killing an average of one prisoner a week, and state officials had shown themselves incapable of complying with constitutional standards, including the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

On Tuesday, Henderson said the latest report from receiver Clark Kelso showed “significant progress,” to the point that many of the goals have been accomplished. “The end of the receivership,” the judge said, “appears to be in sight.”

It’s not over yet, though. Henderson told lawyers for state prison officials and the inmates to meet with Kelso and try to agree on when the state will be ready to run its own system, under continued monitoring — by Kelso or someone else — to prevent backsliding. Their report is due by April 30.

In the meantime, the prison population continues to shrink, a development closely linked to two decades of health care litigation.

Donald Spector, who heads the Prison Law Office, which has been litigating the California prison cases for 20+ years, told the Los Angeles Times that he’s worried the state may backslide after the receivership is lifted, given the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis. California Healthline has a helpful backgrounder on the issue.

 

Los Angeles County Sued Over Violence, Abuse in Jails

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“Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his top commanders condoned a longstanding, widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the county jails,” said the ACLU yesterday, announcing a federal class-action lawsuit. The named plaintiffs, Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, claim that they were severely beaten by sheriff’s deputies while they were awaiting trial in the jail.

The ACLU of Southern California has long been litigating L.A. jail conditions and has served as court-appointed monitor of the jail — the nation’s largest — since 1985. The new lawsuit, however, includes new first-hand eyewitness accounts from chaplains and other observers of violence. The ACLU has put together a timeline of alleged incidents of abuse; you can also read the full complaint here.

The L.A. Times reports:

“Like members of street gangs, these deputies sport tattoos to signal their gang membership,” the ACLU alleges. “They beat up inmates to gain prestige among their peers, and ‘earn their ink’ by breaking inmates’ bones.”

In an interview with The Times, a recently retired jails commander also said that deputies had formed cliques inside Men’s Central Jail and that some guards earned respect from veteran members of those cliques by using excessive force.

Will Alabama Be Sued Over Prison Overcrowding?

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That’s the dire prediction made in this editorial from the Birmingham News:

Actually, it’s surprising someone hasn’t sued already. We’ve known since May the U.S. Supreme Court’s dim view of California’s overcrowded prisons. The high court ordered California to get rid of 30,000 of the prison system’s 140,000 inmates after inmates’ lawsuits contended the overcrowding violated their rights and kept them from getting needed medical care and other services.

Alabama’s prisons are even more jam-packed than California’s, with our state’s 30,970 inmates exceeding the prisons’ designed capacity by 190 percent, according to state data. California’s prisons were at 175 percent capacity at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. While Alabama’s prison conditions aren’t nearly as bad as California’s, Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones expressed the obvious concern.

“California’s prisons are not as overcrowded as Alabama’s are right now,” Jones told the TimesDaily of Florence in a story published Tuesday in The Birmingham News. “I’m afraid that all it’s going to take is for someone to take some of the California lawsuits and change the names of the defendants to Alabama officials instead of California officials and a group of federal judges is going to order that Alabama reduce a bunch of prisoners to reduce overcrowding.”

The California case referred to is, of course, Brown v. Plata, last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding a federal court order requiring the Golden State to reduce its prison population. At the time, for all its importance as a moral statement, I didn’t think Plata would have much practical effect for other states since no other state has prisons as overcrowded as California’s — no other state, that is, except for Alabama. So, it’s not surprising to me that officials there are worried.

I don’t think Alabama has as much to fear from federal judges as this editorial implies. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

January 5, 2012 at 8:07 am

Seventh Circuit: Wisconsin’s “Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act” Violates the Eighth Amendment

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Surely, had the Wisconsin legislature passed a law that DOC inmates with cancer must be treated only with therapy and pain killers, this court would have no trouble concluding that the law was unconstitutional. Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid penological purpose and amounts to torture. – Fields v. Smith, 7th Cir., Aug. 5, 2011

The Seventh Circuit recently struck down a 2005 Wisconsin law, the “Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act,” that barred prison doctors from prescribing hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery for transgender prisoners. The Seventh Circuit panel of Gottschall (a district judge sitting by designation), Rovner, and Wood held that the statute violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, affirming a ruling by Wisconsin federal district judge Charles Clevert. (While Clevert’s ruling also found a Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause violation, the Seventh Circuit did not reach that issue, striking the law solely on Eighth Amendment grounds.)

Writing for the panel, Judge Gottschall (PDF here) summarizes the expert testimony offered at trial about the “feelings of dysphoria” caused by Gender Identity Disorder (GID):  Read the rest of this entry »

Jerry Brown’s Prison Population Reduction Plan May Not Satisfy Court Order

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A new report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento concludes that Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” approach to reducing the prison rolls may not cut numbers enough to satisfy the Supreme Court’s order in Plata v. Schwarzenegger. The Sacramento Bee reports:

Facing a deadline two years from now to cut inmate populations by 34,000, the state plans to begin shifting inmates to county jails on Oct. 1.

But a report released Friday by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office suggests that corrections officials may not be able to meet the June 27, 2013, deadline but can make a case to the courts that more time is needed.

“Given the dramatic policy changes the Legislature already has approved, we believe the state has a strong case to make to the courts for a grant of more time to implement this complex realignment of responsibilities from the state to counties,” the report states.

The Los Angeles Times notes that the report recommends sending more inmates to out-of-state private prisons, contrary to Gov. Brown’s plan to cut back on privatization. Also check out the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage. You can download the full LAO report here.

The California Budget Crisis and Prisoners’ Religious Rights

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The Jewish Daily Forward has an interesting article on how California’s budget crisis is affecting the Kosher Diet Program offered to Jewish prisoners:

Though state prisons continue to receive their kosher food allotments, said [Rabbi Lon] Moskowitz, the Jewish representative on the CDCR’s Chaplains Coordinating Committee, several of the facilities no longer have masgichim, or kosher food inspectors, to ensure that the allotments are, indeed, kosher.

Moskowitz, who is the Jewish chaplain at the California Men’s Colony, also told the Forward that

funds were lacking for essential religious artifacts, and for things such as “grape juice, matzo and candles for Shabbat.” Inmates, he said, “have less access to chapel services and true religious opportunities for prayer, study, penitential counseling, behavior modification programs and rehabilitation.” The situation for chaplains has become increasingly frustrating, he charged: “There is a steady move from being professional clerics to clerical workers spending most of the day doing administrative [work] and paperwork.”

California’s Kosher Diet Program was instituted in 2003 after a Jewish inmate brought a successful lawsuit under the First Amendment and RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the 2000 federal law that governs prisoners’ religious rights. The Forward article suggests that too many cuts to the Kosher Diet Program, or similar programs for inmates of other faiths, could invite further litigation from prisoners.

Written by sara

June 8, 2011 at 10:13 am

More Notable Plata News and Commentary

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This roundup will be sort of haphazard, but I just wanted to flag a few things that have come across the transom worth your attention:

  • Here’s an informative article by Jeanine Sharrock at New America Media that puts into perspective Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” proposal, which would comply with Plata by shifting responsibility for low-level offenders down to the county level. About a third of California prisoners come from Los Angeles County, where the county jails have their own overcrowding problems, not to mention their own ongoing unconstitutional conditions litigation.
  • Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times has now weighed in. She characterizes the Kennedy opinion as a blast from the past to the 1970s era of sweeping structural reform injunctions. (As, of course, does the Scalia dissent, though Scalia comes to bury, not to praise.) Overall Greenhouse seems to approve, given the uniquely dire state of affairs in California’s prisons: “if the court can’t solve such problems, it still has the power to illuminate them and to summon our better selves. The court uses that power rarely these days, but in this one decision, it found a nearly forgotten voice from long ago.”
  • And here’s a detailed analysis of the opinion from Stuart Taylor, who has some sympathy for both the majority opinion and the Alito dissent but describes the Scalia dissent as “overheated.”

EDITED TO ADD: I meant to include one more:

  • Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee gives some additional context to the Justice Kennedy opinion. J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed federal receiver in charge of CDCR, was a Kennedy clerk back in Kennedy’s Ninth Circuit days.

More Plata Commentary: Experts Edition

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From folks who know what they’re talking about:

  • Jonathan Simon, Berkeley professor and criminal-justice scholar: “this is the first decision to move beyond evaluating prison conditions, to place mass incarceration itself on trial.” And on the Scalia dissent: “In Scalia’s universe, a court could order the release of a prisoner from Auschwitz, but not the closing of Auschwitz. This is a coherent vision of the Constitution, but one that renders the Constitution largely irrelevant to modern society.”
  • Doug Berman, Ohio State professor and expert on criminal sentencing: “anyone who does not like the idea of federal courts ordering a state to release prisoners really should be complaining about the fact that [a Republican] Congress in 1996 clearly contemplated and clearly authorized federal courts to enter such an order through the enactment of the PLRA.”
  • More Doug Berman [this is from the comments section to the above link]: “I continue to find it hard to contemplate that a responsible state could/would let things get so bad in their prisons so as to have made such a factual record to justify the need for the federal court involvement. It is truly an embarrassment to CA, and I commen[d] the majority of the Court for recognizing that judges can and must sometimes say enough is enough.”
  • Jeanne Woodford, former San Quentin warden (paraphrased by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez): “Woodford told me California has run an aggressive ‘catch and release program,’ in which we send tens of thousands of parolees back to state prison each year for violations, many of them minor, that could be handled more cheaply and easily at the county level. In her opinion, we incarcerate “many more prisoners than is necessary for the safety of the public.”
  • Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel, ACLU: “Foremost, reducing prison overcrowding will actually lead to less crime and safer neighborhoods. Our extremist sentencing policies have bloated our prisons so severely that not only are they unsafe, unhygienic, and unconstitutional, but also excessively costly and actually a detriment to public safety.”

Also, a programming note: There’s, predictably, been a flood of commentary on Monday’s Supreme Court decision ordering California to bring its prison overcrowding crisis under control. Also predictably, much of that commentary is starting to get repetitive or otherwise non-illuminating, so I won’t attempt to keep a comprehensive archive going (not that such an archive wouldn’t be useful for, well, archival purposes — if I weren’t super-busy this week with other projects, I might take it on, but alas, SCOTUS doesn’t consult my schedule when timing the announcement of its decisions!). But of course, I will certainly keep linking selectively to those more provocative or informative responses, such as those listed above, that I believe to be worth your reading time. Of course, please add further suggestions in comments if you think I’ve missed something!

Rounding Up the Brown v. Plata Commentary

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Here’s a (non-comprehensive) roundup of coverage and commentary on yesterday’s Brown v. Plata decision. Please also visit the California Correctional Crisis blog – they’re the experts and they call the opinion “a mixed blessing”: given his framing of the issue, “Justice Kennedy sets the stage for the state to avoid early releases by recurring to damaging, malignant techniques, which will only increase mass incarceration in the long run.” Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy blog also has several helpful posts on the decision, and will surely have more to come.

  • Adam Liptak’s solid summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in the New York Times. Also in the NYT, analysis of how the decision might factor into California’s ongoing fiscal woes.
  • Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog on how the majority and dissenting opinions seem to have different visions of what the majority opinion actually entails.
  • The Los Angeles Times explains how Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan, which would transfer low-level inmates down to county jail, could achieve the required population reduction without “releasing” anyone from custody. More on that plan from the SF Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko. (But, the plan would cost an increase in taxes, and if there’s one thing California voters love, it’s refusing to pay higher taxes even while demanding super-expensive criminal-justice policies.)
  • Press release from the Prison Law Office, the Berkeley-based prisoners’ rights law firm that’s been litigating this case for 20 years. A handy nutshell summary plus links to a wealth of documents from throughout the litigation.
  • Forbes blogger Ben Kerschberg has a well-done round-up of quotes and facts on the situation in California’s prisons.
  • The always-interesting Dahlia Lithwick on the Court’s inclusion of photographs in the opinion.
  • Tim Lynch of Cato provides some context on Justice Kennedy’s interest in prison reform.
  • Helpful backgrounders from KQED’s Bay Area news blog and KALW’s Informant blog.

Commentary from California pols:

  • Gov. Jerry Brown: “As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”
  • CDCR Secretary Matt Cate on reforms already under way to shift the lowest-level offenders out of state prison down to county jail: “What we do best is focus on high-risk, high-level offenders. That’s always been the traditional role of prisons, you know. The governor was really surprised to learn that California had 47,000 offenders that went to prison last year that served 90 days or less.”
  • State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley: “Our prison system is an expensive failure. It is a threat to both the public safety and the financial well-being of California.”
  • An AP roundup of additional quotes from California politicians.

California editorial boards:

  • SF Chronicle: “The Supreme Court’s ruling to end California’s shameful and dangerous prison overcrowding demands an answer from Sacramento, not more rhetoric and legal dodges.”
  • San Jose Mercury News: “The governor and Legislature need to stop whining and begin making changes that meet civilized standards and will make Californians safer.”
  • Los Angeles Times: “the truth is that experts have been suggesting responsible ways to ease prison overcrowding for years. One way is to create an independent panel to revise the state’s haphazard sentencing guidelines, which all too often result in excessive terms that worsen overcrowding.”

And lastly, my take:  Read the rest of this entry »

Supreme Court Upholds California Prisoner Release Order, 5-4

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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. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. — (2011)

Today a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case here, from SCOTUSblog. The initial order was issued in August 2009 by a special three-judge panel of judges, as required for prisoner release orders by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. I tweeted some highlights from the opinion and dissents here, at Twitter.

The Kennedy opinion is notable, actually, for a relative absence of Kennedy-style flowery rhetoric. Instead, it focuses on the concrete details of suffering documented over the past 20 years of litigation over the California prison system — complete with a photo appendix. It seems like the lawyers at the Prison Law Office (no relation to the Prison Law Blog!) did an excellent job impressing upon the Court the severity of California’s overcrowding crisis. It probably also helps on that score that Kennedy is from California (and Breyer, too, whose brother is a federal judge in California).

I’ll try to read the opinions more closely later in the week and provide more detailed analysis. I’ll also do a roundup later in the week of notable commentary. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of initial news reports:

For an introduction to the California prison system, see my December 2010 post “Truly Appalling.” Here are some of my other earlier posts on this case and related matters:

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