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Supreme Court orders California to reduce prison population, next steps unclear

In a 5-4 decision delivered this week the U.S. Supreme Court found that California’s overcrowded prisons violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The New York Times reports:

The majority opinion included photographs of inmates crowded into open gymnasium-style rooms and what Justice Kennedy described as “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets” used to house suicidal inmates. Suicide rates in the state’s prisons, Justice Kennedy wrote, have been 80 percent higher than the average for inmates nationwide. A lower court in the case said it was “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

Monday’s ruling in the case, Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233, affirmed an order by a special three-judge federal court requiring state officials to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity. There have been more than 160,000 inmates in the system in recent years, and there are now more than 140,000.

California is in the process of shipping some prisoners to The GEO Group’s North Lake Correctional facility in Baldwin as part of an overcrowding relief effort supported by former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state’s current governor, Democrat Jerry Brown, opposes shipping prisoners out of state and wants to move excess state prison inmates into empty units in county jails instead.

Last month California Correctional Peace Officer Association spokesman Ryan Sherman criticized his state’s move to begin shipping prisoners out of state before delivery of the Supreme Court ruling.

Outsourcing prisoners might be a way to deal with a Supreme Court mandate to downsize, he said, though it will be an expensive way to do it.

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