Brown v. Plata

131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011)


California's prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court's decision the population was almost double that. The State's prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet. Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. (the list goes on and on and on.) Coleman v. Brown was filed in 1990. Coleman involves the class of seriously mentally ill persons in California prisons. Over 15 years ago, in 1995, after a 39-day trial, the Coleman District Court found 'overwhelming evidence of the systematic failure to deliver necessary care to mentally ill inmates' in California prisons. In 2007, 12 years after his appointment, the Special Master in Coleman filed a report stating that, after years of slow improvement, the state of mental health care in California's prisons was deteriorating. The Special Master concluded that many early 'achievements have succumbed to the inexorably rising tide of population, leaving behind growing frustration and despair.' The second action, Plata v. Brown, involves the class of state prisoners with serious medical conditions. The State stipulated to a remedial injunction. The State failed to comply with that injunction, and in 2005 the court appointed a Receiver to oversee remedial efforts. The court found that 'the California prison medical care system is broken beyond repair,' resulting in an 'unconscionable degree of suffering and death.' The Receiver explained that 'overcrowding, combined with staffing shortages, has created a culture of cynicism, fear, and despair which makes hiring and retaining competent clinicians extremely difficult.' The Coleman and Plata plaintiffs, believing that a remedy for unconstitutional medical and mental health care could not be achieved without reducing overcrowding, moved their respective District Courts to convene a three-judge court empowered under the PLRA to order reductions in the prison population. The three-judge court heard 14 days of testimony and issued a 184-page opinion, making extensive findings of fact. The court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of the prisons' design capacity within two years. This appeal eventually resulted.