Governor Brown challenges California prison reform
For decades, California’s prison system has been out of compliance with basic human rights requirements. Over the last 10 years, the system has been operating near 200% of its design capacity. This severe overcrowding has led to a litany of abuses from grossly inadequate healthcare, to the virulent spread of infectious disease, to a stunningly high suicide rate among inmates. Long under Federal receivership, California’s inmate mental health system is an abject failure. Combined with the rampant use of constitutionally questionable variations on solitary confinement, these failures have played a significant role in California’s inmate suicide rate. With an average of 24 suicides per 100,000 prisoners, the State sits well ahead of the national average of 16 suicides per 100,000 prisoners.
Amnesty international released a report in September of 2012 describing California’s practice of caging inmates in solitary housing units (SHUs) as a blatant violation of both the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and international laws on the treatment of humanity. Mental health experts warn that SHUs should be an option only of last resort because even a few days under such conditions cause severe trauma. In 2011, California was host to over 500 inmates housed in solitary confinement for over 10 years; some of them only children when first incarcerated others with significant and well known mental health problems.
Slow legal response
In response to these, and many other issues, a number of human rights organizations filed suit on behalf of prisoners seeking federal intervention. In 2011, after a tortuous legal battle spanning many years, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137% of capacity by June 2013. This ruling lead to the current realignment crisis under which the state has been shifting prisoners from state facilities to county jails and borrowing from county funds to cover state prison costs. Political backlash last year stalled this effort and put pressure on Governor Brown to challenge the court order. In March, a Federal judge denied the Governor’s petition to have the prison order terminated; leading Brown to publicly state that he would again take the case all the way to the Supreme Court rather than continue to comply with the 2011 order.
What you can do now
In the meantime, California’s prison population continues to suffer under difficult conditions, sometimes in violation of the Constitution, international law, and a direct Supreme Court order. While the legal wrangling continues at the state and national level, I am working hard to secure remedies for individuals. By filing Petitions for Writ of Habeas Corpus, I can sometimes challenge an inmate’s confinement in state or federal prison.
If you or a loved one is currently incarcerated in California’s broken system, do not wait on a political solution for reform. While I remain optimistic that reform will be implemented, legal rights should not be kept on hold in the meantime. Please, contact my office immediately to determine whether you can seek post-conviction relief. As Justice Kennedy stated in his 2011 opinion, even convicted criminals have basic rights to their humanity. I can help fight for yours.