Testimony before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7 in the case of Schwarzenegger v. Plata put the spotlight on these and other inhuman aspects of the California state prison system.
The case that is now before the Supreme Court began as two class-action suits brought by prisoners seeking to end long-standing medical abuses. The first, filed in 1990, charged that prisoners with acute mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, were not receiving basic care. A second, filed in 2001, argued that health care in the California prisons is so bad that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
In 2009, the decision of a three-judge panel in California put major blame for the continuing abysmal level of medical care on the crowded conditions, where a system designed to house 80,000 prisoners now contains twice that many. The judges mandated that the prison population be reduced through the release of roughly 44,000 prisoners over the next two years.
That decision has been appealed to the Supreme Court by the state of California on the basis that courts should not interfere with how prisons are administered and that releasing 44,000 prisoners threatens public security. Lawyers for 18 other states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, have joined in support of the appeal.
Medical procedures done in prisoners cells, without access to basic requirements of sanitationlike clean water or gloveswas an example of the type of abuse prisoners at San Quentin have faced, according to Christine Thomas, a paralegal with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Thomas told the Militant that the closing of facilities for the mentally ill in earlier decades has added to the numbers in prison who need psychiatric care. Prisons are the place where many of those who are mentally ill are taken, she said. Mental illness has been criminalized.
Medical and psychological illnesses have also been made worse by conditions faced by the growing numbers of prisoners in Security Housing Units (SHUs) in California. Prisoners labeled as dangerous by their jailers, including those targeted because they have resisted injustices and brutal prison conditions, are placed in the SHUs, where they are isolated in individual cells, unable to communicate, eat, or exercise with others.
The 750 percent increase in the prison population in California since the mid-1970s is attributed in part to get tough on crime legislation, including mandated sentencing, imprisonment for even minor parole violations, and the three strikes law passed in 1994.
As the prison population has grown, budgets for prison educational programs have been slashed. Up to 900 instructors in English, math, vocational, and other classes were laid off as a result of this years $250 million cuts.
In addition, Prison Focus, a newsletter filled with letters from prisoners, describes cutbacks across the board, including daily showers denied, visits reduced, and yard exercise time limited to once a week.
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