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The US Supreme Court has ruled that the state of California must drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding that has exposed inmates to increased violence, disease and death.

California is home to the largest prison system in the US - the country with the world's largest incarceration rates.

The high court on Monday called on the US state to cut the population to no more than 110,000 inmates, meaning California will have to shed some 33,000 inmates over the next two years. State officials can accomplish that by transferring inmates to local jails or releasing them.

Shorter term inmates will leave prison before the Supreme Court's deadline expires, and newly sentenced lower-level offenders would go to local jails under the plan.

The 5-4 ruling revealed a sharp divide on the court between US Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.

Kennedy wrote for the majority and described dismal conditions where prisoners are denied minimal care and suicidal inmates are held in `"telephone-booth sized cages without toilets".

"A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilised society,'' Kennedy wrote.

Al Jazeera's Kimberly Halkett reports.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies