California seeks two year extension to comply with prison population reduction order

California is seeking a two-year extension to comply with the federal court order to reduce the state’s prison population to 137.5% of design bed capacity. 

The state is asking a three-judge panel to extend the deadline for compliance until Feb. 28, 2016. Unless the extension is granted, the state has until April 18th to meet the prison population cap, which was upheld by the U.S. court in 2011.

Read more: Spotlight: California Prison Capacity Expansion

If granted the two-year extension, the state would take the following steps to meet the population cap:

  •  increase good time credits prospectively to low-risk inmates (2-for-1) and non-violent second strike offenders (33%);
  •  allow the Parole Board to consider the release of medically incapacitated inmates, inmates over the age of 60 who have served at least 25 years of their sentence, and non-violent second strike offenders who have served 50% of their sentence;
  •  keep but not add to the 8,900 inmates held in out-of-state facilities;
  •  allocate $81.5 million from SB 105 to programs designed to reduce recidivism.

Gov. Jerry Brown indicated that if the court does not grant the extension, he would meet the population cap by moving thousands of inmates to out-of-state private prisons and use the $81.5 million marked for recidivism reduction to pay for the inmate transfers.

The state’s request was filed on Jan. 23rd after months of negotiations failed to produce a settlement with the plaintiffs in the Plata and Coleman class action lawsuits.

Read more: Three-judge panel grants CA more time to negotiate plan to comply with prison population cap

The Plata and Coleman suits alleged that inmates have been denied basic medical and mental care due to the chronic and severe overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

The federal courts ordered California to reduce its prison population after ruling that the lack of care inflicted unnecessary suffering and even resulted in preventable deaths and thus violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The Plata and Coleman plaintiffs opposed the two-year extension, arguing that the state has the ability to meet the 137.5% cap by the deadline.

“Another extension is not warranted because it unduly delays relief to the prisoners who continue to live under abysmal unconstitutional conditions, and [the state has] the means both under state law and previously granted waivers to comply with the population cap on time,” according to the plaintiffs’ filing.

The plaintiffs stressed that California is still not providing the constitutional level of medical and mental health care due to overcrowding and staff shortages, and that some prisons are still 178% over design capacity.

The Plata plaintiffs cited examples of denial of basic care. One example was a prisoner who died several hours after complaining of abdominal pain. He was “abandoned by nurses” and the physician who was notified refused to examine him. The prison staff who found him unresponsive in his cell also failed to perform CPR.

Read more: CDCR admits mentally ill inmates are being held in solitary confinement

The Coleman plaintiffs argued that the state has failed to adequately address preventable suicides and mental health staff shortages persist, contributing to significant delays of inmates seeking higher levels of care.

Furthermore, there are still not enough mental health beds available so the state is still housing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement units for long periods of time.

“Prisoners with mental illness continue to suffer needlessly and die at staggering rates as a consequence of [the state’s] failure to provide minimally adequate mental health treatment and conditions of confinement,” according to court documents.

The plaintiffs added, “In light of these serious and ongoing constitutional violations, granting [the state] a two year extension of time will inevitably result in incalculable suffering.”

The plaintiffs pointed out that the state’s proposal to prospectively – not retroactively – grant good time credits was “designed to have little effect” on reducing inmate populations immediately.

They also questioned why the state should be granted a 2-year extension if it plans to transfer inmates to private prisons in and out of state.

“Their proposal is to use the extension to build capacity in private in-state facilities. This distinction is not worth a two year delay in the remedy in this case,” according to the plaintiffs’ response.

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