Today, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the issue of prison overcrowding in California — or, specifically, the judicial order that California must release 46,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons within two years. For those not familiar with this order issued last year, a little bit of background:
At issue is whether the special three-judge court overstepped its legal authority under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) when it ordered the inmates released.
The 1996 law was enacted to restrict the sweep of judicial oversight in prisoner rights cases. Lawyers for the state of California are arguing that the California-based judges ignored a congressional requirement that judicial orders be closely tied to resolving the specific problem raised in each case.
The release order was issued in a case challenging the adequacy of medical care and mental health services for California inmates. Plaintiffs alleged that medical and mental health services in California prisons were so deficient that they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
The judges determined that chronic overcrowding was a root cause of the poor services and that the quality of treatment would not improve until the prison population was reduced.
California complained that the judges’ order for a large-scale release of inmates usurps the state’s power to run its own prisons and threatens public safety.
I suspect that the state has a really over-inflated sense of just how much the public is being protected by incarcerating the number of individuals they are. They also must have a really poor sense of — or more likely, apathy towards — the number of human rights violations that are being committed in their prisons just generally, let alone because of the extent to which they are currently overcrowded.
The sad truth is that too many people both in California and across the United States will easily believe them and panic over the dangerous hoards that might descend on the innocent, unsuspecting public. But let’s look at some of the facts. Like, for instance, these facts:
Over the past twenty years the State of California has built twenty-one new prisons, added thousands of cells to existing facilities, and increased its inmate population eightfold. Nonviolent offenders have been responsible for most of that increase. The number of drug offenders imprisoned in the state today is more than twice the number of inmates who were imprisoned for all crimes in 1978. California now has the biggest prison system in the Western industrialized world, a system 40 percent bigger than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The state holds more inmates in its jails and prisons than do France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.
Did you catch that? The number of drug offenders imprisoned in California is more than twice the number of all offenders imprisoned in California just 30 years ago. California, and the rest of the U.S., isn’t just imprisoning a whole lot more people — it’s imprisoning a whole lot more people on the basis of violating a bullshit, privileged sense of morality, rather than on the basis of actual harm done to other people.
Indeed, while I was unable to find statistics on the number inmates who were convicted on non-violent offenses specifically for California (leave them if you’ve got them!), a study released earlier this year by the Center for Policy and Economic Research found that a whopping 60% of U.S. inmates overall were made up of non-violent offenders, with a quarter of them being non-violent drug offenders.
California is looking at being forced to release only about 30% of its prison population, taking the number down from 156,000 to 110,000 — in a prison system built to hold, it should be noted, only 80,000.
In other words, only non-violent offenders need be released. The system will still be severely overcrowded when they’re done. California, which has been embroiled in an ugly and highly publicized fiscal crisis, would even likely save a good deal of money by following the order. As a result, a number of human rights abuses would be reduced, and lives would most likely be saved. And for that, the state is throwing a temper tantrum.
Which is all to say that I don’t believe for a second that California’s concern is really over “public safety.” After all, the drug war itself has always been more about upholding racist structures and punishing social “deviants” and “undesirables” than actually addressing drug problems — which we know based entirely on the fact that we keep throwing addicts, most often addicts who are also people of color, in prison instead of providing them with treatment and socioeconomic resources.
The concern is about seeing the prison industrial complex undermined — about releasing all of these inmates, not seeing a huge uptick in violent activities, and having the public perhaps realize that there was no good reason for incarceration levels to be so high at all. It’s about the threat of losing control over the state’s marginalized populations, of seeing the coercive power of fear diminished. And yes, it’s about money — because while the budget stands to gain, as many scholars of the prison industrial complex have pointed out (see Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? for a start), all of the multinational corporations profiting from the prison system either by selling their goods or using near-slave labor to produce them stand to lose big time. Fewer inmates means fewer workers and fewer forced consumers. Big business, which funds most political campaigns these days, isn’t going to like that.
Now, none of this is to say that I think releasing a bunch of non-violent offenders and completely ignoring them is an ideal solution. It’s far from it. In a much better world, those people would be given the resources they need to improve their lives. While I do not believe drugs to be an inherently bad thing, they can and do harm both individuals and communities. Not all inmates convicted on drug charges have addictions, but a great many do, and they deserve access to treatment for them. They and their communities also deserve the kinds of things that prevent addiction in the first place and assist in preventing relapse — access to education, health care including mental health care, and viable socioeconomic opportunities that don’t merely succeed in perpetuating poverty.
But as far as bad options go, I’d rather see these prisoners released and left alone than continue to be incarcerated. The former leaves them in the usually bad place they started. But the latter, with the likely effects of rape, beatings, constant surveillance, power abuses, denied medical care, and exploitative labor conditions, leaves them a whole lot worse off. It’s time we as a society start acknowledging that. We can and should do a whole lot better to address social problems. But even the inexcusable choice to do nothing is, in a whole lot of cases, better and far less abusive than what we’re doing now.