Feb. 15, 2009: Cash crisis forces California to free 55,000 prisoners
Feb. 10, 2009: U.S. judges seek massive California prisoner release
– Supreme Court orders California to free up to 46,000 prisoners (Telegraph, 23 May, 2011):
California has been ordered by the US Supreme Court to release up to 46,000 prisoners because of chronic overcrowding, despite one jail in the state only having only two inmates.
The Supreme Court said cramped conditions in the state’s prison system were causing “needless suffering and death.”
However, at the 1,600 capacity county lock-up in Castaic, north of Los Angeles the population currently stands at just two and the inmates can choose from hundreds of beds.
The men, one black and one Latino, are members of rival gangs and are watched over by a single guard. They have taken to playing chess together after giving up basketball because one of them is 6ft 8 ins and the other 5ft 7 ins. The smaller inmate said: “I got tired of losing.”
News of their spacious quarters came as the Supreme Court, sharply split 5-4, ruled overcrowding was breaching California prisoners’ Constitutional rights. It followed two decades of legal challenges by inmates.
The system is designed to hold up to 80,000 people but currently houses around 148,000. Examples of overcrowding include up to 200 inmates sleeping in one prison gymnasium and 54 sharing a single lavatory.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “The medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons falls below the standard of decency.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented from the ruling, called it “staggering and absurd” to order the release of “46,000 happy-go-lucky felons” and said it was “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” He said: “Terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.”
The largest prisoner release ever ordered by a federal court leaves the means of reducing overcrowding to the “discretion of state officials” in California but it must be done in two years.
That could mean building new prisons or transferring inmates to other states. However, cash-strapped California has few resources for new building projects, and other states already have their own overcrowding problems.
The ruling said without new prisons or transfers California “will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.” Governor Jerry Brown plans to move some low level offenders to county jails, possibly including Castaic, which should reduce the number of early releases.
Last week two inmates were stabbed when 150 prisoners rioted at a maximum-security prison in the state capital Sacramento.