(Washington) - The US Supreme Court on May 23, 2011, endorsed the constitutional right of prisoners to be free of cruel and unusual conditions of confinement and the government's responsibility to provide a remedy for violations of that right.
The court, in Brown v. Plata, upheld the ruling of a special panel of three federal judges that found that medical and mental health care in California prisons fell below constitutional standards, primarily because of severe overcrowding. To remedy that overcrowding, the panel had ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. The Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, upheld that order.
In an amicus ("friend of the court") brief, Human Rights Watch had joined other human rights and civil rights organizations and argued that international human rights law supported the lower court's prisoner release order. Under international law, when a state violates the prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, the state needs to provide those harmed with an adequate and effective remedy.
California's prisons have become perilous places where inmates and staff are at severe risk of disease, mental illness, and death, Human Rights Watch said. Inmates face "incompetence, indifference, cruelty and neglect," as the three-judge panel noted. Preventable deaths occur weekly. Psychotic inmates are left untended. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been "held in [...] a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic," and that prison officials had explained they had "no place to put him."
Almost two decades of litigation, remedial plans, goals and measurements, receivers and special masters had scarcely improved the state's prison medical and mental health care systems. Any gains were quickly swept away by the rapidly growing prison population. Conditions are so horrific that four former and current heads of prison systems in California and other states - including two who had never before testified on behalf of prison plaintiffs - testified against the state during the case and agreed that drastic action was necessary. A battery of experts left no doubt that the appalling conditions could not be cured unless and until the overcrowding was brought under control.
California claimed that federal courts did not have the authority to issue a prisoner release order under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act.
In upholding the lower court ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Prison Litigation Reform Act cannot be interpreted in a way that would deny prisoners an effective remedy from violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion, "Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons[...]. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society."