On January 8th, California Governor Jerry Brown ceremoniously declared an end to what he called the "prison emergency" in his state caused by epic overcrowding, chronic under-staffing, and the systemic mistreatment of inmates. "I mean, we've gone from serious constitutional problems to one of the finest prison systems in the United States," he said, pitching a success story with which no federal court in the past two decades has ever agreed.
Not only was the prison system now the envy of the nation, the governor proclaimed, but the health care given to California inmates was so good that it was worthy of awe by ordinary citizens unencumbered by the bonds of custody. "Most of the people in prison get far better care for mental health problems or their physical well-being inside the prison than they'll get once they're released on the streets," he said. And then Pat Brown's son said this:
We've spent billions of dollars. We've hired hundreds, if not thousands, of professionals to make sure that we have excellent health care and excellent mental health care. And because of that, it is now time to return the control of our prison system to California. We have the constitutional obligation. We have the expertise and we're ready to do it. There's no question that there were big problems in California prisons -- overcrowding, lack of health care, lack of mental health care, lots of other problems. But after decades of work, the job is now complete.
But it was not up to the Governor to unilaterally declare his state in compliance with its legal obligations to the inmates. The state long ago lost that right by persistently depriving prisoners of basic medical care under conditions that virtually every single reviewing court has deemed to be "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment. Not only were the governor's remarks an insult to all those mistreated people, in and out of prison; they were also irrelevant as a matter of law. He still needed permission from the federal courts to reclaim state control over prisons -- and, in January, he asked for it.
Sometime in the last few years, unwilling to pay the price of restoring basic constitutional rights to the inmates, frustrated state officials ginned up a new idea to wiggle out from under federal judicial oversight of their overcrowded and understaffed prisons. Instead of doing an honorable thing -- complying in good faith with a a series of federal court orders requiring them to provide adequate medical treatment to thousands of mentally ill prisoners -- state officials chose to do a dishonorable thing. They chose to cheat.
Instead of hiring enough psychiatrists and staff to help treat the inmates, or moving more quickly to provide inpatient care for the ill men and women, or following the recommendations of a court-appointed expert who urged them to alter their suicide prevention policies, California officials decided instead to interrogate mentally ill inmates without giving notice to, or getting consent from, the prisoners' attorneys. State officials then used those interviews to argue in their January motion that California had complied with its legal duties to the inmates.
But such ex parte contact between officials and inmates violates California's attorney ethics rules. (Imagine how a judge or jury would react to the use of a mentally ill person's statements against that person in court.) Worse, at the same time that officials were unlawfully questioning these prisoners, they were denying requests for information about prison practices and policies made by the inmates' attorneys. On Friday, a federal judge in Sacramento put an end to the sleazy scheme. He denied Gov. Brown's motion and once again ordered California to obey the letter and the spirit of the Eighth Amendment.
If you know something about the recent history of California's continuing failure to humanely treat prisoners, then you will find frustrating U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Karlton's ruling in the case styled Coleman v. Brown. Once more, a judge had clearly set forth what officials must do to meet their legal obligations to the inmates. Once more, a jurist caught California blatantly disregarding its legal duties while pretending otherwise to the world. Once more, state officials have embraced a culture that dehumanizes inmates by diminishing their mental illnesses.
And if for some reason you know nothing about what's been happening in California's prisons these past few decades -- if, for example, you didn't pay attention when United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy declared California's prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded -- Judge Karlton's ruling offers a quick summary of why the costly case has lingered unresolved for decades. It's not that the state can't comply. It's that the state still doesn't want to comply. It's no more complicated than that.
Read the ruling for yourself and then compare it with Gov. Brown's January announcement. For example, the "far better care for mental health problems" the governor said that state inmates now are receiving? That care is evidently so good, the actual evidence shows, that the state's inmate suicide rate, which fell to 15.7 per 100,000 prisoners in 2009, has risen again to 23.72 per 100,000 prisoners in 2012. The most obvious sign of poor mental health treatment -- the pace of suicides -- is getting worse, not better, inside Gov. Brown's prisons.
Last August, after 16 years of litigation over the poor treatment of these prisoners, and one year after Justice Kennedy ordered California to more quickly bring its prisons into compliance with baseline constitutional standards, Judge Karlton offered state officials what he identified as six "critically important" goals they would have to meet in California prisons to satisfy their constitutional burdens. Solve these problems, he told them, and you will be in compliance with federal obligations and thus free from federal oversight. The six items were:
Re-evaluation and updating of CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] suicide prevention policies and practices;
Ensuring that seriously mentally ill inmates are properly identified referred, and transferred to receive necessary higher levels of mental health car, including inpatient care only available from DMH [Department of Mental Health];
Addressing ongoing issues related to placement of EOP (Enhanced Outpatient) inmates in administrative segregation, particularly those housed in such units for over 90 days;
Completion of the construction of mental health treatment space and beds for inmates at varying levels of care;
Full implementation of defendants' new mental health staffing plan; and
Refinement and implementation of MHTS.net [the defendants' internet-based mental health tracking system] to its fullest extent and benefit.
To win, Judge Karlton wrote, "defendants must prove that there are no ongoing constitutional violations in the delivery of mental health care to the plaintiff class." First, he turned to suicide prevention. We can't eliminate all suicide risks, California had argued, and we've put into place a "thorough, standardized program." Not good enough, the judge ruled*: "The facts show that the rate of inmates suicides is not declining, and more than seventy percent of inmate suicides in California involve significant inadequacies about which defendants have known for years."
Next, the judge addressed "administrative segregation," the grim policy by which state prison officials segregate mentally ill prisoners in isolated cells or wings that naturally exacerbate the inmates' illnesses. (This is an ongoing problem in federal prisons, too.) Here, Judge Karlton didn't need to look further than to California's own experts -- their testimony undercut their client's argument that prison officials had "developed and implemented procedures" to better protect mentally ill prisoners from "administrative segregation or security housing" units.