United States Supreme Court Upholds Order to Release 40,000 Prisoners Due to Overcrowding in California PrisonsMay 26, 2011

On May 23, 2011, the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata upheld a court order requiring California to release up to 46,000 prisoners to relieve serious overcrowding in the state's prisons and remedy grossly inadequate medical and mental health care.

In what may be the most significant prisoner's rights case in years, the Court found that the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

At oral argument in November, Justice Breyer described prison conditions as "horrendous," citing evidence of prisoners “found hanged to death in holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces, and discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights locked in small cages.”

"A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care," the Court reasoned in this week's decision, "is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society."

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy acknowledged that the scope of the release order -- reduction to 137.5% capacity or up to 46,000 prisoners -- is "unprecedented," but noted that "[o]ver the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient."

Refusing to "shrink from [the] obligation to 'enforce the constitutional rights of all 'persons,' including prisoners", the Court rejected the State's arguments that the release order was premature and unnecessary: "The State’s desire to avoid a population limit . . . creates a certain and unacceptable risk of continuing violations of the rights of sick and mentally ill prisoners, with the result that many more will die or needlessly suffer. The Constitution does not permit this wrong."

Prison populations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, and Florida have been lowered in recent years without adversely affecting public safety, the Court noted. It suggested that California, which sends large numbers of people to prison for violating a technical condition of their parole, could reduce the prison population by punishing technical parole violations through community-based programs.

The decision is expected to have broad implications for many states where record levels of incarceration also have resulted in severe overcrowding and unprecedented security issues for vulnerable prisoners. The prison population in the United States is at an all-time high of more than 2.3 million people incarcerated.