In what is undoubtedly the biggest win for inmates serving time in deplorable prison conditions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Prison Litigation Reform Act DOES authorize the release of prisoners to remedy the egregious violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights. The case is Brown, et al. v. Plata, et al., No. 09-1233 and the opinion is here.
Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion and explained what was at stake:
For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.
As Justice Kennedy stated, the remedy for constitutional violations associated with excessive prison overpopulation is the release of prisoners–that holding is a monumental win for prisoners. But even more important is the Court’s recognition that prisoners are human beings; that they retain some level of dignity; and that if the State deprives them of the ability to care for themselves than it is the State’s responsibility to care for them.
Justice Kennedy stated that:
As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. “‘The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.’” To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’” Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. 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.
If government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.
Groups such as the ABA, ACLU, NAACP, the Prison Fellowship, FAMM, Amnesty International, and the Innocence Project have been making this very claim for years to all three branches of government and it is encouraging to see the Supreme Court actually come out and say it. To be sure, prisoners are in prison because they broke the law; for that they should be punished. But just because they are sentenced to incarceration does not mean we should treat them like animals. It does not mean that we can force them to live on top of each other and fail to provide them medical treatment when they need it.
My hope is that Justice Kennedy’s opinion will spur Congress and Department of Justice to alleviate the mass incarceration problem that seems to only grow and never shrink.
Update: Josh Blackman has a great post about the Plata decision.
Another Update: Adam Liptak’s piece on Plata from the NY Times.