Gov. Jerry Brown's administration states that California has already met a court-ordered limit on the state prison population, but inmate lawyers argue that is because the state is counting a half-filled medical prison closed to new admissions.
A panel of three federal judges gave California until June 30 to reduce crowding to a statewide average of 143% of what its prisons can hold, the first of a series of increasingly lower population limits. In an April update to the court, lawyers for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said the system is now at 141% of capacity.
They reached that average by including 1,500 empty beds at a new medical prison outside of Stockton. The facility is at 47% capacity, and was closed to new medical admissions earlier this year after the death of an inmate and concerns it was poorly run.
In a court motion filed Friday, lawyers from the Prison Law Office representing inmates argue that counting empty cells and medical beds allows California to keep 4,000 more inmates in other prisons than would be permitted.
They have asked judges to calculate the crowding average by looking at only the state's 33 other prisons. State population reports show 16 of those prisons currently exceed what the court will allow as a statewide average June 30.
It is "like two people living in a bathroom," said Bruce Garvin, whose wife is serving time at the California Institution for Women, currently reported at 150% capacity. He said most cells, built for one, hold two people.
The most crowded is the Central California Women's Facility at Chowchilla, at more than 183% capacity last week with 3,675 women living in a space built for 2,004. The prison's population has increased substantially since it was audited and accredited by the American Correctional Assn. in 2012.
"There is one person on top of another ... It is a pressure cooker simmering," said attorney Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office, who said the prison houses eight women to a room with a single toilet and shower.
As of Monday, there had been no state response to the motion. The press office for the state corrections department also did not immediately respond to a reporter's calls and messages.
[Updated 5 p.m. April 28: The corrections department provided written responses to some questions late Friday afternoon confirming that women sharing 18-by-19-foot dorm rooms at the Chowchilla prison have a single toilet, sink and shower between them. Agency spokeswoman Krissi Khokhobashvili said crowding in all of the state's women's prisons will drop to 140% when a private prison in McFarland opens to take 520 female inmates. The contract was recently awarded to Florida prison operator GEO Group.]
At the time of the original 2011 crowding order, California prisons had nearly twice as many inmates as the buildings were meant to hold. Federal judges ruled the crowded conditions led to preventable prison deaths, suicides, and unconstitutionally substandard medical and psychiatric care.