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U.S. Supreme Court's close vote for prison justice

I am not surprised that the four most conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were unconcerned by the desperate plight of prisoners in California's shockingly overcrowded prisons. Compassion for vulnerable people is just not their thing.

In two separate dissents the four justices — Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — thought it an outrageous judicial overreach that a special three-judge court ordered California to reduce the size of its prison population to 137.5 percent of the system's capacity, down from a high of nearly 200 percent (where it had operated for at least 11 years.)

It didn't matter to them that inmates in California's prison system needlessly suffer and die due to a lack of health care. Or that the federal courts have been ordering the prison system to address shortfalls in mental health for the last 16 years without sustained success.

On the other side of the 5-4 ruling Monday was the court's four most liberal members joined by its only moderate, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said, "Enough is enough."

As Kennedy's majority opinion points out, the conditions at California's 33 prisons are so extreme that the former head of corrections in Texas (yes, Texas!) described the system as "inhumane," saying that "in more than 35 years of prison work experience, I have never seen anything like it."

Overcrowding has left the state's prisons rife with infectious diseases, with inmates who are left to die from untreated medical conditions, with a suicide rate that hit nearly twice the national average for prisons and with sanitary conditions so bad that as many as 54 inmates share a single toilet.

To get a glimpse of what life is like, take a gander at the three pictures appended to Kennedy's ruling. Two show intolerably crowded conditions where bunks are stacked in tight rows seemingly in spaces never meant for housing, and the third is of a telephone-booth sized cage with no toilet where psychologically troubled inmates are confined until there is a mental health crisis bed available.

One inmate, observed by a psychiatric expert, had been in one of those cages for nearly 24 hours, standing in his own urine. Prison officials explained they had "no place to put him."

After years of ordering remedies short of prison population reduction — and receiving empty promises that new construction and hiring was on the way — it's clear that the only way to address the cruel way sick and mentally ill inmates are treated is to bring down the total number of inmates. After 14 days of testimony, this was the conclusion reached by a three-judge court in 2009. It ordered the state's prison population reduced to 110,000 over two years, from a high of 156,000. (A ruling that has been on hold since then.)

This positively infuriated the dissenting justices, who pointed to a federal law that said judicially mandated prison de-crowding may only be used as a last resort.

Alito's dissent, joined by Roberts, focused on his predicted public safety consequences of prematurely releasing "the equivalent of three Army divisions" of criminals. He dismissed the experts who testified that the impact would be minimal since California prisons are full of inmates who are there on minor parole violations.

Scalia's dissent, joined by Thomas, was downright hyperventilating. He called the three-judge court's de-crowding order "the most radical injunction by a court in our Nation's history." Then to prove he can out-radical the best, Scalia declared that courts have no business ordering prison populations reduced even when system-wide constitutional violations are proved. Those decisions, according to Scalia, should be left to the elective branches — the very ones that allowed conditions to degrade for society's least sympathetic (and most vulnerable) people. Just imagine the dungeons of misery that would be spawned if Scalia's and Thomas' view won out.

The court's conservative justices rouse their compassion for victims of unconstitutional government action when the target is some big corporation. But as for sympathy for cruelly treated prison inmates? Don't even bother to ask.

U.S. Supreme Court's close vote for prison justice 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 5:30am]
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