State ordered to ease prison overcrowding

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge Monday told the Schwarzenegger administration to act immediately to ease prison overcrowding or face the prospect of a court-imposed population cap.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said that if substantial progress is not seen within six months, he will give lawyers for inmates what they seek: the appointment of a three-judge panel to consider limiting prison admissions.

The lawyers, representing inmates in a long-running lawsuit over mental health care, were disappointed by Karlton’s order. Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office said state officials have had ample time to address the crisis and that only a population cap would provide immediate relief.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will be back here in six months and the problems will only be worse,” Specter said.


But Karlton, who has presided over the mental health care case for 10 years, said the state had recently made progress in tackling the system’s myriad woes. He said that progress “has to be respected, encouraged” before he takes a “radical step.”

“I want to find out” whether the state’s change of heart is serious or just talk, Karlton added.

California has the largest state prison system in the nation, with more than 173,000 inmates packed into space designed for about 100,000. Crowding is so severe that it prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in October, saying the conditions posed extreme danger for inmates and guards alike.

That decree was followed by a program of voluntary transfers of inmates to prisons in other states. So far, however, only 80 convicts have been moved, and other solutions to the crowding problem -- additional beds, for instance -- will take time.


Specter and other lawyers said the crowding is causing a disturbing rise in suicides, violence and other troubles behind prison walls. In arguing for a population cap, they say the conditions amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Mentally disturbed convicts “are being housed on the floor, in corridors and other places not suitable for treatment,” said attorney Michael Bien. California’s prison suicide rate is about twice the national prison average, he said, noting that about 40 verified suicides have occurred this year.

In addition to Karlton, two other judges will weigh whether to form a three-judge panel to consider a population cap, a step required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. One hearing is scheduled for later this month; the other will be in early January.