State Seeks End of Court Orders Capping Prison Population; Legislation Introduced to End Solitary Confinement of Juveniles

prison-reformGovernor Brown Issues Poignant Demand to End Federal Oversight of California’s Prisons- “The prison emergency is over in California,” Governor Jerry Brown declared during a pointed press conference on Tuesday.

He told reporters, “California is a powerful state, we can run our own prisons.  And by God, let those judges give us our prisons back.  We’ll run them right.”

In a more subdued press release, the governor’s office announced that the State of California has taken legal action to end a federal court order that caps the state’s prison population and another that requires “intrusive supervision” of prison mental health care.

“After decades of judicial intervention in our correctional system and the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars, the time has come to restore California’s rightful control of its prison system,” said Governor Brown.

The governor’s office contends that the state has also complied with the court’s order to identify options to achieve additional reductions in the number of inmates held in state prison. This filing, made under protest, asserts that further reductions “threaten public safety and interfere with California’s independent right to determine its own criminal justice laws.”

“California’s prison health care system is now a model for the nation,” said CDCR Secretary Jeff Beard. “Independent expert reviews have found that California’s prison medical and mental health care systems meet constitutional standards. It would be both unnecessary and unsafe for the courts to order further inmate reductions.”

Jeffrey Beard was a member of a 2007 panel assessing the effectiveness of California’s prison and parole systems.

“I’ve taken their own expert, and I’ve made him head of corrections,” Governor Brown said. “What more do you want?”

“The job is now complete,” he said.  “We’ve got it.  Enough already.”

During their press conference, the governor argued that the state’s inmate population has been reduced by more than 43,000 since 2006, to just less than 150 percent of capacity.

However, the court has ordered the state to reduce it to 137.5 percent of capacity.

The governor believes that inmates now receive better health care than outside prison and that overcrowding is no longer an issue.

“The extreme circumstances of overcrowding in California’s prisons no longer exist,” said Secretary Beard. “With improved health care systems and additional state capacity, it is no longer necessary to send prisoners and California taxpayer dollars to other states.”

Governor Brown argued, the California prison system is now “one of the finest prison systems in the United States.”

He argued that further oversight will force California to spend more money wastefully, that it cannot afford to spend.

“We can’t pour more and more dollars down the rat hole of incarceration,” he said.

The governor’s office argues, “Lowering the prison population beyond this point – as ordered by the court – would require rewriting or disregarding the California Constitution and numerous state laws that limit the early release of prisoners. The result would be shorter sentences for inmates incarcerated for serious and violent offenses, increased burdens on counties, and expanded use of contract facilities at considerable cost to the taxpayers.”

Governor Brown also announced that he has signed a proclamation ending the prison overcrowding emergency that has been in place since 2006. This will allow the state to phase out the use of private out-of-state prison beds for California inmates starting in July of 2013. At this time, there are approximately 8,900 California inmates in out-of-state prisons.

In 1991, California prison inmates filed a class action lawsuit, Coleman v. Brown, alleging that California’s prison mental health care system was unconstitutional. Subsequently, prior administrations entered into various consent decrees that set in motion vast judicial oversight of our prison system. In the intervening years, California has rebuilt its prison mental health care system into one of the best in the nation, investing billions in additional treatment capacity and hiring hundreds of mental health care professionals. The state seeks to end this judicial oversight because the mental health care provided to prisoners now exceeds constitutional requirements.

In 2007, the Coleman case, along with Plata v. Brown, a case concerning medical care, was assigned to a three-judge court. That court found that overcrowding was the primary cause of the failure to deliver constitutional medical and mental health care in California prisons, and in 2009 ordered the state to reduce crowding to 137.5 percent of “design capacity.” The U.S Supreme Court affirmed that order in 2011.

Since 2006, the inmate population in the state’s 33 prisons has been reduced by over 43,000 and crowding is down from more than 200 percent to just below 150 percent. More than half of the population decline has happened since October 1, 2011, as a result of Public Safety Realignment.

solitary-confinementSenator Yee Introduces Bill to Limit Use of Solitary Confinement of Juveniles

Senator Leeland Yee argues, “Solitary confinement increases rates of recidivism, mental illness and suicide.”  On Tuesday, he introduced legislation that will define and limit the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities.

In a release, the senator stated, “While the United Nations has called on all countries to prohibit solitary confinement in juvenile cases, the harsh measure is commonly used in state and local juvenile facilities throughout California. Six states – including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Alaska – ban solitary confinement for ‘punitive reasons.’ “

“The use of solitary confinement of a child is wrong and should be used only in the most extreme situations,” said Senator Yee, who is a child psychologist. “The studies are clear – holding juveniles in solitary increases recidivism rates, exacerbates existing mental illness, and makes youth more likely to attempt suicide. Solitary confinement does nothing to help rehabilitate and in fact makes those subjected to it more dangerous and likely to reoffend. SB 61 is necessary to limit this cruel practice and keep all Californians safe.”

Among the provisions of SB 61, the bill would:

  • define solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
  • provide that solitary confinement shall only be used when a minor poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
  • provide that a minor or ward shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
  • provide additional restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for minors with suicidal or self-harming behavior.
  • provide that clinical staff shall review minors or wards regularly to ensure that their physical and mental health is not endangered.
  • empower existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

Nationally, over half of the youth who committed suicide while in a correctional facility were in solitary confinement at the time and 62 percent had a history of being placed in solitary confinement. Research also shows that individuals who were forced into solitary confinement had much higher rates of recidivism as well as developing psychopathologies.

“My godson, who was incarcerated at 15, had many personal challenges in his life during his time in DJJ [Division of Juvenile Justice], such as the death of his mother,” said LaNita Mitchell. “I remember when he was put into solitary confinement. I remember being so worried about him because the change in his demeanor was so obviously different that I was worried about him coming out of solitary and being able to function normally. Many young people go into these torture dungeons troubled, and come out damaged for life.”

“Locking a teen in a room alone for 23 out of 24 hours a day is no way to help a young person get on the right track,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch. “The juvenile justice system should use every minute it has with a youth to create opportunities for education, treatment, and personal growth.”

“My son has made mistakes in his life,” said Maria Sanchez. “But he wasn’t sentenced to be tortured. He wasn’t sentenced to sit in a cold cell by himself all day with no help. I want him to gain the skills he needs to make the right choices. I want him to breathe some fresh air and to have enough food to eat. I want him to get help when he gets hurt. But how can any of this happen if he’s sitting in a cell all day?”

“My son was in the DJJ for more than 4 years and much of that time was in isolation,” said Alex Polo. “We visited him weekly and we could tell when he had been isolated. On those visits, he was silent and lost in thought. Any progress he made was lost when he was placed in solitary.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Mr Obvious

    [quote]VALLEJO, Calif. — Police say a paroled California double murderer has led officers to the body of his 89-year-old mother.

    Vallejo investigators say 70-year-old Dennis Stanworth telephoned police just before noon on Wednesday and said he killed his mother at his home.

    Stanworth led arriving officers to the body of Nellie Turner Stanworth. Investigators won’t say how she was killed.

    Lt. Jim O’Connell says in a news release that Stanworth was arrested and booked for investigation of murder at the Solano County Jail.

    Stanworth was sentenced to death in 1966 after being convicted of two counts of murder for kidnapping, sexually assaulting and shooting two teenage girls in Contra Costa County. The sentence was later reduced to a life sentence, and he was paroled and required to register as a sex offender.

    Read more here:

    I know this isn’t exactly the right place for this article. 70 years old and still committing murders even though he is “statistically” outside of the prime age to be an offender. I seem to remember someone saying these older prisoners aren’t as dangerous and should be let out. Hmmm, who was it?

  2. David M. Greenwald

    He’s definitely a statistical outlier, which why I think we are better off evaluating people on an individual basis than we are having mandatory sentencing.

  3. Mr Obvious

    He was evaluated on individual basis and could not have been let out if he hadn’t been. The system failed and will continue to fail. I would like to ask Ms Stanworth if we are better looking at those convicted on an individual basis or using mandatory sentencing. Because the double murderer was weighed on an individual basis we will not be able to ask her opinion.

  4. Mr Obvious

    Not thousands. At least the ones who kidnap, sexually assault, and murder their victims. Just for fun I’d lump in those who rape one or more child. It’s not like this guy was sentenced to death for marijuana possession or stealing cheese.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    I understand your point, and perhaps agree depending on how far you are taking the point. If you are arguing that this particular man was a danger and shouldn’t have been released, I probably don’t disagree. If you are arguing that all 70 years who are past murders represent the same threat level, I’m not there. I’m not against LWOP.

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