Schwarzenegger v. Plata. (California Prisons. Bad.)

     Prison, it’s a bad thing.  In California, it’s really bad.  So bad, that in October of 2005, the U.S. District Court in California ordered that California’s prison medical system be placed under the control of a court appointed receiver.  In May of 2005, a federal district court judge had described medical treatment in the California prison systems as “horrifying” and shocking.”  He described widespread medical malpractice and neglect.  The court found that the system was broken beyond repair, causing an unconscionable degree of suffering and death.  The court found that, on average, an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days because of  grossly deficient medical care.
     This morning, in a rare 80 minute session, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Schwarzenegger v. Plata.  The terminator seems to think that his prisons are hunky dory and doesn’t want to follow the orders of a federal 3-judge district court, set up as a result of a class action filed under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act. 
     The court ordered in January of this year that California reduce its prison overcrowding to 137.5 percent of capacity.  Right now, California prisons house over 160,000 inmates.  That is nearly twice as many as the facilities are designed to hold.  The federal 3 judge court stayed the population reduction order, meaning that it will not take effect , until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the appeal that the terminator has filed in this case.
     The justices gave the state of California a shellacking this morning.  The terminator’s attorney, Carter Phillips, came out swinging but completely missed the mark.  His argument that the reduction order was premature was met with disbelief by Justice Ginsburg, who asked how much longer do we have to wait to do something.  She referred to the 70 orders made by the district court during the 20 years that this prison litigation has gone on.  
     Justice Sotomayor, once again, took control of the argument, asking what are the alternatives to inmate reductions?  She said there is no other option and asked Attorney Phillips for concrete steps that California would take, instead of reducing the prison population.  When Phillips began to refer to a statement the receiver had made about prison levels, Justice Sotomayor held up her hands for him to stop, saying “if that is all you are relying on.”
     Phillips tried to say that the constitutional violations taking place in the California prison system are a result of a culture of disregard of inmates, not overcrowding.  The Justices did not seem to place this argument in high regard. 
     In sharp contrast to Attorney Phillips, a high-priced hired gun, was Donald Spector, attorney for the inmates.  Spector is an attorney with the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, California.  He is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who seemed committed to the cause.  The Justices asked him for information – about the history of the litigation and evidence.  Only Alito, concerned about public safety upon the release of 46,000 inmates, questioned if there was another way, besides releasing inmates, to remedy the constitutional violations in the prison system.  Attorney Spector made it clear that nothing else in the past 20 years had worked to improve conditions, and that population reduction was the only option.
     If California loses and has to comply with the district court order, the terminator will have to release 46,000 prisoners by 2011.  That’s a lot of Hasta la Vista, baby’s, that the terminator will have to say.

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