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US: California Should Reduce Overcrowding in its Prisons

Amicus Curiae provided to the United States Supreme Court in Schwarzenegger v. Plata


This case involves ongoing, undisputed, and lethal constitutional violations in the California state prison system.  As the lower court found, and the State does not dispute, “the medical and mental health care available to inmates in the California prison system is woefully and constitutionally inadequate, and has been for more than a decade.”  JS1-App. 8a. Despite findings of Eighth Amendment violations in 2002 (medical care) and 1995 (mental health care), and the entry of dozens of remedial orders by the Coleman and Plata district courts, State officials have been unable or unwilling to bring their prison health care system into compliance with minimal constitutional standards.

The lower court also found, and the State again does not dispute, that “California’s inmates face a second everyday threat to their health and safety:  the unprecedented overcrowding of California’s prisons.”  Id. at 9a. The State’s prisons have for years operated at nearly double their intended capacity, with some institutions approaching 300% of capacity.  Governor Schwarzenegger, in declaring a prison emergency that continues to this day, observed that this creates “conditions of extreme peril” that threaten “the health and safety of the men and women who work inside [severely overcrowded] prisons and the inmates housed in them[.]” Id. The State’s independent oversight agency has concluded that “California’s correctional system is in a tailspin.” Id. at 8a.

Faced with severe and ongoing constitutional violations, the Coleman and Plata district courts requested the convening of a three-judge court to consider whether a prisoner release order should be entered under the requirements set forth in the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).  See 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(D).  The three-judge court conducted a lengthy trial and ultimately found by clear and convincing evidence that (1) crowding is the primary cause of the ongoing violation of plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment rights, and (2) no other relief will remedy those violations.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(E).  Accordingly, the lower court entered a prisoner release order, directing the State to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of the system’s design capacity within two years.[1] 

The State now appeals, contending that the lower court’s order is barred by the PLRA.  The State’s arguments are, individually and collectively, without merit.  Moreover, if accepted, they would render prisoner release orders unavailable, even when necessary to cure ongoing constitutional violations.

This case is unique in its intersection between severe and longstanding Eighth Amendment violations, and extreme and persistent crowding.  Simply put, if a prisoner release order is not available on this record, it is an illusory remedy.  The State’s proffered interpretation of the PLRA cannot be squared with the statutory language or the legislative history; it would also raise serious constitutional questions and contravene the treaty and other international law obligations of the United States.  For these reasons, this Court should decline the State’s invitation; the order below should be affirmed.   


Both the plain language and the legislative history of the PLRA make clear that Congress intended to preserve the availability of prisoner release orders when necessary to redress constitutional violations.  The PLRA’s prisoner release provisions were motivated primarily by cases in which population caps had been imposed in the absence of any finding of a constitutional violation.  That concern has no application in this case, in which constitutional violations were found in 2002 and 1995 and persist today despite dozens of remedial orders.

The State’s challenge to the three-judge court’s jurisdiction based on allegedly erroneous findings by the single-judge district courts is not properly before this Court on direct appeal.  The general rule is that this Court’s direct appellate jurisdiction extends only to orders actually entered by three-judge courts, and no exception to that rule applies here.  Any error underlying the single-judge courts’ requests to convene a three-judge court did not affect that court’s ruling on the merits, and it is that ruling that is properly before this Court. 

Contrary to the State’s contention, the three-judge court was not required to reconsider the constitutional violations found by the single-judge Plata and Coleman courts.  Congress required a finding of “current and ongoing” violations in a different section of the PLRA, but not in the sections governing the entry of prospective relief in general or prisoner release orders in particular.   Nor was the three-judge court barred by the PLRA from establishing a reasonable cut-off date for evidence it would admit at trial.  Moreover, any error in this respect was harmless, since the State does not identify a single piece of evidence it contends was erroneously excluded by the three-judge court. 

Finally, the State advances a highly restrictive construction of the PLRA which, if accepted, would render prisoner release orders unavailable as a practical matter.  A construction that would make such orders unavailable even when necessary to cure ongoing constitutional violations would raise serious constitutional questions, and therefore should be avoided if possible.  Moreover, under international law, including treaties ratified by the United States, failure to provide prisoners with adequate medical and mental health care can constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  Because states are required to make available effective legal remedies to victims of such treatment, a construction of the PLRA that makes prisoner release orders de facto unavailable would contravene these international law obligations.  This Court should accordingly adopt a construction of the PLRA that does not raise these grave constitutional and international law concerns, and should affirm the order below. 

[1] Under the PLRA, a “prisoner release order” includes “any order … that has the purpose or effect of reducing or limiting the prison population, or that directs the release from or nonadmission of prisoners to a prison[.]”  18 U.S.C. § 3626(g)(4).  Thus, while the lower court’s order does not actually require the release of prisoners from the California prison system, it nevertheless qualifies as a “prisoner release order” under the statute. 

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