Politics & Law

The turn-around state? Does California have one of the finest prison systems in the nation?

Jonathan Simon

As readers of this blog know, Gov. Jerry Brown of California has combined leadership on reducing California’s bloated prison population with relentless attacks on the courts whose orders have made that badly needed “realignment” political possible.  Still even I was surprised by the air of unreality to the Governor’s dual press conference yesterday, backing up the state’s legal filings yesterday seeking an end to the federal court oversight of California’s prison health system, and a respite from its prison population cap (listen to the California Report’s coverage here).

We’ve gone from serious constitutional problem (sic) to one of the finest prison systems in the United States.  Most of the people get far better care for mental health problems or physical well being inside prison then they’ll get when released on the streets. (Cecilio Padilla’s reporting on Fox 40 here)

The state’s main correctional problem now, according to the governor, is the court’s oversight and lawyers.

While acknowledging court intervention had forced vast improvements to a system that was in crisis, Brown said overly intrusive judges had unleashed a feeding frenzy of highly paid attorneys “running around the prisons looking for problems.”(Paige St. John in the LA Times here)

I have not had time to read the state’s legal filings (almost done grading, almost) but these claims are remarkable and possibly outrageous.  First let’s remember the context.  Judge Thelton Henderson put the state’s prison health care system in receivership in 2005 finding that after three years the state had accomplished very little toward a settlement agreement for improving health care and that a prisoner a week was dying of unmet medical needs.  In 2009 a three-judge court ordered the population cap finding that chronic hyper overcrowding (with many units housing 300 percent of their already optimistic design capacity) was exacerbating the medical and mental health problems and making improvements impossible.

Then Attorney General Brown appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Brown v. Plata (he was now Governor) , he U.S. Supreme Court upheld that order — against all the same arguments the Governor is once again making.  Describing the lack of health care as approximating “torture” in its significance, Justice Kennedy wrote:

Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.

The evidence in the record, what Governor Brown calls “constitutional problems” included the following profiles of medical failure:

California’s prisons were designed to meet the medical needs of a population at 100% of design capacity and so have only half the clinical space needed to treat the current population.  A correctional officer testified that, in one prison, up to 50 sick inmates may be held together in a 12-by 20-foot cage for up to five hours awaiting treatment. …. The number of staff is inadequate, and prisoners face significant delays in access to care. A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after a 5-week delay in referral to a specialist; a prisoner with “constant and extreme” chest pain died after an 8–hour delay in evaluation by a doctor; and a prisoner died of testicular cancer after a “failure of MDs to work up for cancer in a young man with 17 months of testicular pain.”

We can all hope that conditions like this are a thing of the past in California.  The fact that they persisted in the state for at least a decade is an utter disgrace that calls for investigations and accountability, rather than euphemisms and attacks on the courts.  But the very tone of the Governor’s remarks are good reasons to hope the courts will not relinquish oversight.

crowded inmate dorm

Inmate housing, Mule Creek State Prison, Amador County (CDCR photo)

The fact that prisoners now get better health care than they get when they return to the streets may say much more about how poor community mental and physical health care is in California’s communities of rural and urban disadvantage.  It is also the case that prison is a far harder place on physical and mental health than even impoverished free communities, because of crowded conditions, racialized gang divisions, and systematic lack of opportunities for education or work.

The Governor coincidentally also acknowledged successful treatment for prostrate cancer, describing himself as “raring to go” (read Steven Harmon’s reporting in the Mercury News here).  If he thinks lawyers are gold plating our prison health care perhaps he should demonstrate that by receiving his future cancer follow up treatment at Folsom or San Quentin (one can hope his outcome will be better than the young prisoner who died of testicular cancer after 17 months of reporting pain).

Is California now one of the “finest prison systems” in the nation?  A lot depends on what we mean by finest.  If that means strong educational, vocational, and rehabilitation programs, that has not been true since the Governor’s father was Governor.  Does it mean keeping the largest number of people locked up?  Thanks to the courts we have now lost that status to Texas, (but they are at least more competent managers).

The truth is that California has followed a path of indiscriminate imprisonment for decades.  Most of the damage was done during the 1980s under Republicans like Deukmejian and Wilson, and Democrats like Gray Davis who committed the state to mass incarceration policies.  While Governor Brown’s realignment policies are an important turn away from that pattern he has yet to articulate a convincing vision of public safety, and in his attacks on the courts he suggests he does not have one.

The claim that further efforts to reduce the prisoner population to meet the court order is baseless.  The reality is that California prison sentences are not based on prospective risk and California prisons offer no serious rehabilitation programs to the overwhelming majority of prisoners.  Reducing sentences by days, weeks, or even months (all that would be necessary to meet the targets) is unlikely to alter how those prisoners will behave once released.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "The turn-around state? Does California have one of the finest prison systems in the nation?":
    • Crystal Phillip

      Our prison system sucks they treat the men like animals. My son is 26 he was addicted to Meth and a thief for that he’s doing 25 years Really!!

      How is it that the prison systems has cell phones in the prison? I know when i order my son quarterly packages i didn’t see list of Cell phones I can choose from. The deputies need to be held accountable for their actions I know for a fact it’s through the deputies that cell phones are in the prisons and they charge inmate 500 or more depending on the phone, but if an inmate gets caught with one, they send him to the hole for 6 months, what a shame.

      Governor Brown pay attention our system sucks. My son was just transferred to Kern Valley and had to sleep on metal because they didn’t give him a mattress. My son is not a gang member, killer or rapist. He shouldn’t be treated like a dog and that just kills my spirit.

      Shame on the system, I guess protect and serve don’t apply in prisons.

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    • Ginger Holman

      I agree with the above comment! I don’t know what happened to Jerry Brown, but he is certainly not the progressive politician we used to know here in California. I could hardly believe it when I read that he is claiming that California has one of the finest prison systems in the U.S. I am aware of multiple cases of physical and mental health abuse, as well as lack of access by most prisoners to educational opportunities beyond the G.E.D. So sad.

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    • Patricia Penn Hilden

      Thank you, Jonathan! Once again, you have taken the time to respond thoughtfully to another staggering claim about the “quality” of California’s shameful prisons. We were utterly horrified by the governor’s comments. So much for the conscience we used to attribute to him when he was Gov. Moonbeam!

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