California will try to convince the Supreme Court this week not to force it to free inmates from its massively overcrowded jails, where one expert described conditions as ‘abysmal.’
The state has appealed to the top court to annul a ruling that some 46,000 inmates should be freed within two years, warning that the released prisoners could pose a risk to public safety.
But critics say California, with among the most overcrowded and underfunded prisons in the United States, has dragged its feet and must be forced to take action a long-running dispute triggered by concerns over inmates’ health.
“Prisoners’ mental health is being made worse by the unprecedented levels of overcrowding,” Professor Craig Haney of the pyschology department at the University of California, an expert witness in the case, told AFP.
“Many of the prisons are unsafe and the living conditions inside them are abysmal … State officials have refused to take meaningful action, forcing the courts to become involve to remedy these unconstitutional conditions,” he said.
Cash-strapped California has some 148,000 inmates housed in 33 prisons designed for some 80,000 people, according to the state’s own figures.
Images of prisoners stacked into triple-bunk beds packed into gymasiums drew widespread criticism, although officials claim to have made progress in the last few years, since the state’s prison population peaked about 175,000.
In August last year 55 inmates were hospitalized after a riot at a prison in the the town of Chino, east of Los Angeles, while more than 200 others with minor injuries.
The action which has led to Tuesday’s Supreme Court action was initiated by two prisoners who complained they were being denied access to medical and psychiatric care, alleging resources were strained by the huge jail population.
Three federal judges ruled last year that there was “overwhelming” evidence that the overcrowding in California’s prison system was depriving inmates of the health care they were entitled to under the US constitution.
But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said freeing a quarter of the prison population would represent a danger for the state’s 37 million residents.
“Sending 40,000 inmates out of the game is not something that is in the best interests of public safety,” said spokesman Oscar Hidalgo of California’s Correction and Rehabilitation department, on the eve of the Supreme Court case.
He insisted California has made progress — notably contracting out some 10,000 inmates to private jails in Arizona and Mississipi — and should not be dictated to by a federal court ruling.
“We’ve emptied gymnasiums of triple bunks… there’s been quite a bit of relief in terms of overcrowding,” he said.
“We think the population reduction has to be done over time, and it has to be done without a court mandate to do it by a certain time,” he added, referring to the two-year deadline set by last year’s federal ruling.
Professor Haney, who has visited some of the prisons himself in his role as expert witness, said California is simply playing for time.
“Tens of thousands of prisoners are in jeopardy every day inside these prisons,” he said.
“And yet Department of Corrections officials continue to ask for ‘more time’ to address issues that they have shown themselves unwilling or unable to address in the past.”
Schwarzenegger — in his last year as California governor — suggested in January that California could even send thousands of undocumented inmates to specially built jails in neighboring Mexico.
But the state’s prison department spokesman downplayed the idea. “It’s not something that we’ve actively pursued. I think he made that comment as we were doing some out-of-state contracting.
“It’s never come to fruition,” said Hidalgo.
Republican former “Terminator” star Schwarzenegger is due to hand over power in January to veteran Democrat ex-governor Jerry Brown, and with it the task of coping with California’s chronic jail problems.