Overcrowded jails inimical to justice

In California, long jail sentences pack prisons, but a Supreme Court ruling and a hunger strike may improve conditions.

Overcrowded California jail
The Supreme Court recently ruled that overcrowded prisons in the state, such as the one above, violate prisoners’ constitutional rights [EPA]

It’s been two months since a divided US Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling, which ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population by roughly 33,000. The state’s 33 prisons currently hold 156,000 prisoners, nearly double the number they were designed to house.

In the 5-4 ruling, the court said that overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions violated constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment and threatened inmates’ health. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care has no place in civilised society.”

In order to highlight the inhumane conditions, Justice Kennedy, in a rare move, included three photos in his opinion showing overcrowded conditions in gymnasium-style rooms and holding cells used to house suicidal inmates. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets.

“A psychiatrist expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic,” wrote Justice Kennedy. “Prison officials explained they had ‘no place to put him’.”

Justice Kennedy also noted that California’s prisons have operated at around 200 per cent of capacity for at least 11 years, as many as 200 prisoners live in a gymnasium, and 54 share a single toilet.

Inaccurate media coverage

The ruling has since received national media attention, much of it focused on the false premise that the “worst of the worst” will now be released onto the streets, looking for the next crime to commit.

On May 23, CBS Evening News anchor Russ Mitchell said the decision “could unlock prison doors for tens of thousands of criminals in California”. 

KTLA-TV reported that the “Supreme Court is handing a ‘get-out-of-jail’ free card to thousands of California convicts”. 

“Inmates are being ordered back on the streets because the state is chronically unable to hold them in decent conditions,” said anchor Micah Ohlman. In the piece, victim’s rights advocate Ana Del Rio, whose 23-year-old daughter was shot to death, said she now worries about a crime wave. “Put ’em where the Supreme Court lives,” she said.

In addition to the media spreading false information, the dissenting Supreme Court Justices are engaging in predictable fear mongering. “The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito. “I fear that today’s decision, like prior prison release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong.” 

Justice Antonin Scalia went further, calling the ruling “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history”. He wrote that many of the released inmates “will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”

As Sacramento Bee senior editor Dan Morain noted in a recent piece, Justice Scalia is operating on outdated information. “Officials removed weights from the prisons in 1997.”

Much of the coverage has spent more time on the dissent than the ruling itself, and fails to state that California is not giving “get-out-of-jail” cards to anyone. Beginning October 1, non-violent offenders will be sent to county jails.

‘Three Strikes’ law packs prisons

The conversation we’re now hearing about county jails that are already overburdened fails to address the real questions. Why does the US send so many people to prison in the first place? Why are sentences eight times longer than those in Europe? We need to be talking about sentencing reform, especially for drug possession and petty theft, racism (70 per cent of US inmates are of colour), technical parole violations, and California’s infamous “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, the harshest sentencing law in the country.

What should the punishment be for people like Isaac Ramirez, a man with no violent past who was charged with stealing meat, a TV, and a VCR on three separate occasions?

If it weren’t for Three Strikes, he would have been charged with a misdemeanor and served a maximum of six months in jail. Under Three Strikes, he got 25 years to life. You read that correctly. Ramirez’s third strike, stealing a $199 VCR from a Sears store in Southern California, got him 25 years to life. And we live in a “civilised” society? 

In prison, Ramirez taught himself the law by reading books he requested from California law schools because the materials in the prison library weren’t up to date. He says his lawyer “dropped the ball” on many occasions, so after a few years of constant reading, he represented himself in court and got out after serving almost seven years. He was lucky. If those law schools had ignored his request, he would probably still be behind bars. He now has to live with and try to heal from the pain and suffering he experienced. He says the state did nothing to help him make the transition.

“I served with people serving multiple life sentences for murder. I saw a lot of violence behind bars. A friend a few feet from me was shot by a prison guard. You never forget those experiences,” he said. “I’m not the same person I was. My wife knows I love her, but I tend to withdraw. I missed seven years of my children’s lives. They know I love them, but there’s a compartment in their hearts that has been hardened and I have to work on that for the rest of my life.” 

Over 8,500 people have been convicted under California’s Three Strikes law, which was enacted in 1994. According to Stanford’s Three Strikes Project, over 4,000 inmates are serving life sentences for a non-violent third strike. People are rotting away, and, in many cases, losing their minds in inhumane conditions for stealing one dollar in loose change from a parked car, attempting to break into a soup kitchen, and possessing less than a gram of narcotics. 

If you’re caught with even a small amount of drugs for personal use, you could be charged with a felony. According to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), over 9,000 people are sent to California state prisons every year for drug possession, costing taxpayers $450m.

“If you made non-violent property offences and possession of small amounts of drugs misdemeanors instead of felonies, you’d reduce the annual prison population by tens of thousands and save billions of dollars,” says Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the DPA. 

According to California Prison Focus, California is cutting $150m from its education budget in order to pay $140m in overtime costs alone to guard thousands of prisoners with no violent write-ups or behaviour. 

Many California Democrats will privately say they back sentencing reforms and overturning the Three Strikes law, but they’ll never say it publicly for fear of being branded “soft on crime”. Their inability to do the right thing for fear of losing the next election is ruining lives and breaking families apart. Mass incarceration has also been extremely detrimental to the economic development of communities of colour, which, in turn, leads to violence and an even larger prison population.

Protesting inhumane conditions

Prisoners and their supporters are working to break this deadly cycle. Last month, more than 6,600 inmates in 13 California prisons went on a 20-day hunger strike to protest cruel and inhumane conditions. The inmates issued five demands seeking better treatment and living conditions. 

“The decision to strike was not made on a whim. It came about in response to years of subjection to progressively more primitive conditions and decades of isolation, sensory deprivation and total lack of normal human contact, with no end in sight,” said a written statement by hunger strike leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison, a Northern California supermax facility where inmates live in windowless cells for years. It costs more than $50,000 a year to house these men in isolation.

“This reality, coupled with our prior ineffective collective filing of thousands of inmate grievances and hundreds of court actions to challenge such blatantly illegal policies and practises led to our conclusion that a peaceful protest via hunger strike was our only available avenue to expose what’s really been going on here and to force meaningful change.”

Here’s how National Public Radio reporter Laura Sullivan described Pelican Bay in 2006:

“Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet … The cell is one of eight in a long hallway. From inside, you can’t see anyone or any of the other cells. This is where the inmate eats, sleeps and exists for 22 1/2 hours a day. He spends the other 1 1/2 hours alone in a small concrete yard. You can’t move more than eight feet in one direction.

“One inmate known as Wino is standing on just behind the door of his cell. It’s difficult to make eye contact, because you can only see one eye at a time. Wino is a 40-something man from San Fernando, California. He was sent to prison for robbery. He was sent to the special housing unit for being involved in prison gangs. He’s been in this cell for six years. The only contact that you have with individuals is what they call a pinky shake,” he says, sticking his pinky through one of the little holes in the door. That’s the only personal contact Wino has had in six years.”

The inmates said they met with several top Corrections Department administrators and were told “meaningful changes” would be made.

Those of us on the outside have a responsibility to support and speak out for those who are being tortured on the inside. As the inmates at Pelican Bay stated, “Without the people’s support outside, we cannot be successful!”

We should also pressure the media to stop the fear-mongering and address the real issues. “The media is the most important tool we have to educate the public,” says Isaac Ramirez, the man who got 25 years to life for petty theft. “Our prisons are a reflection of our society. The Supreme Court decision has given us the opportunity we need to make real changes.”

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco. She’s the author of Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland.

Contact Rose Aguilar at: rose@yourcallradio.or

Follow Rose Aguilar on Twitter: @roseaguilar

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.