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 on Monday, 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 A. Alito Jr. filed vigorous dissents. Justice Scalia called the order affirmed by the majority “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” Justice 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 Justice Kennedy described as “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets” used to house suicidal inmates. Suicide rates in the state’s prisons, Justice 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.”
“Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness,” Justice Scalia wrote, “and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”
In his statement from the bench, Justice Scalia said that the prisoners to be released “are just 46,000 happy-go-lucky felons fortunate enough to be selected.”
The real question is: how will this affect the profits of the prison industrial complex? We can only hope they it won’t affect the CEO bonuses and salaries.
The United States is the world’s leading jailor with a current incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000.
Those numbers may actually be a bit off. The N.Y. Times reported the rate to be more than one in 100 are behind bars.
For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report by Pew Center on the States.
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 Hispanic adults is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 black adults is, too, as is one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that only one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 are behind bars but that one in 100 black women are.
The report’s methodology differed from that used by the Justice Department, which calculates the incarceration rate by using the total population rather than the adult population as the denominator. Using the department’s methodology, about one in 130 Americans is behind bars.