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The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata and it epitomizes the dire circumstances of the nation’s penal system. With more than 2 million locked up on any given day, including about 1.5 million in prison (not to mention the fact that more than 7 million adults are somewhere in the criminal justice system on any given day — jail, prison, probation, parole), the country has come face to face with the inevitable result of its incessant need to punish. Not only does the US have the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world, the money spent surpasses that spent on education in most states and has contributed to a growing budget crisis that threatens to bankrupt these states. California alone holds more than 160,000 inmates within its prison system, ranked just behind the state of Texas. 

The major cause of the current crisis can be found in the fact that the nation has declared a war on drugs and continues, in spite of overwhelming evidence of its failure, to criminalize those substances that are in great demand. Fully 80% of those in the federal prison system are there on drug convictions while about one-third in state prisons are locked up for drugs. We spend at least $50 billion a year on the drug war and another $68 billion keeping people in prison and jails. More than 600,000 will be released from prison each year, mostly with no place to go, little education and few marketable skills. About two-thirds will be sent back within a year or two. 

A class-action lawsuit brought by prisoners alleging inadequate medical care caused by serious overcrowding has resulted in a decision by a three-judge federal panel ordering the state of California to release one-fourth of its inmates. The judges wrote the following: 

Tragically, California’s inmates have long been denied even that minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal. Inmates are forced to wait months or years for medically necessary appointments and examinations, and many receive inadequate medical care in substandard facilities that lack the medical equipment required to conduct routine examinations or afford essential medical treatment. Seriously mentally ill inmates languish in horrific conditions without access to necessary mental health care, raising the acuity of mental illness throughout the system and increasing the risk of inmate suicide. A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the state’s failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.

Later in this document the judges wrote: 

Thousands of prisoners are assigned to bad beds,” such as triple-bunked beds placed in gymnasiums or day rooms, and some institutions have populations approaching 300% of their intended capacity. In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control. In short, California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.

To those of us who have studied the history of prisons, this comes as no surprise. Since the first prisons were opened in the states of New York and Pennsylvania, they have served as a warehouse for the unwanted, the marginalized, the surplus population. Indeed, starting with the Irish in the early 1800s the penal system of this country has been the residence of racial and ethnic minorities who, as is the case with most of the marginalized, do not matter to the powers that be. They are invisible, without a voice and powerless to do anything about it. The only time they are noticed is when they riot (as with Attica in 1971) or when conditions get so bad that a lawsuit forces the major media to turn their cameras and microphones away from their usual banal subjects. 

California is arguing that they are fully aware of the problems and are doing all they can to make the corrections. Dire consequences will result with the release of about 40,000 inmates, they warn. Crime will go up, they warn. The people will not be safe. And the most common refrain: We don’t have the money to provide alternatives. Don’t have the money? They already spend an estimated $47,000 per inmate per year.

The comments of the three-judge panel gave these prisoners a voice. Let us hope that for once the Supreme Court gives them another voice.