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.