Keeping America’s Prisons Overcrowded

In a case before the Supreme Court, California Gov. Schwarzenegger is arguing that judges have no right to tell states to reduce their prison populations.


America’s prisons, like many of our public schools, reflect our country’s most shameful and profound failings. This week the U.S. Supreme Court takes on one aspect of our nation’s love affair with incarceration.

In Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the state of California has challenged an order issued by a three-judge federal court under the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which requires the state to reduce its prison population to deal with overcrowding. The court found that overpopulation is directly responsible for the failure of the California system to provide inmates with adequate physical and mental health services. California argues that the prison reduction order issued by the three-judge court under the PRLA goes beyond the scope of the statute and infringes on the state’s power.

This case is likely to play out before the court and in the media as a battle over states’ rights — in this case, the right of the state of California to manage its own prison system — and against the encroachment of federal judges supplanting the judgment of elected leaders with their own version of appropriate public policy. Indeed, 18 states have joined in a brief supporting the state of California and making this very argument.

But there’s much more at stake in this case than the age-old “state sovereignty versus federal courts” story. In fact, the federal court’s prison reduction order in this case is something of a last resort — imposed only after eight years in which the state of California, while conceding the unconstitutional overcrowding in its prison system, has failed to reduce its prison population. The Plata suit stems from an action filed back in 2001. The state conceded in 2002 that prison overcrowding threatened the constitutional rights of prisoners. 

Three years later, the state had failed to impose reforms it had agreed to in any of its prisons. As a result, Judge Thelton Henderson assigned a federal receiver in 2005 to oversee reforms to the California prison system after finding that although the court had given the state “every opportunity” to make reforms, the state department of corrections “lacked medical leadership” and had “a culture of non-accountability and non-professionalism,” resulting in threats to the health of prisoners. 

Built for 80,000 prisoners, the California corrections system houses twice that number of inmates. In 2006 the first receiver’s report determined that “until the … overpopulation experienced system-wide is effectively addressed,” it would be impossible to remedy the inadequate delivery of health care services in the state’s prisons. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself declared a Prison Overcrowding Emergency. Driven by the chronic overcrowding problem and by the pinch of the poor economy that has left many states short of funds to maintain bloated prison populations, Schwarzenegger even proposed a plan in 2009 that would have reduced the prison population by 36,000.

By then, the court’s order was based on factual findings that prison overcrowding is a direct cause of the state’s failure to provide adequate physical and mental health services to prisoners, resulting in the death of one prisoner every eight days. But the California Legislature failed to take up and enact a responsible plan that would have reduced the prison population. There’s no political gain to enacting reforms that would release prisoners and create more-humane conditions for those who remain incarcerated.