Who should control California’s prison budget? U.S. Supreme Court may weigh in

A legal battle over who gets to control California’s massive spending on prisons — judges or corrections officials — may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with overcrowding at the state’s 33 prisons at the center of the debate.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state officials have challenged an edict from three federal judges that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must cut the prison population by 40,000, or about a quarter of its 165,000 inmates. The judges’ order, issued last August, cited overcrowding as the main cause of healthcare failures that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and left inmates to die from treatable conditions at the rate of one per week.

The three-judge order brought to a head the tension over a decades-long judicial practice of intervening in prison management to correct what have been deemed unconstitutional deficiencies in state custody. Courts have empowered a phalanx of overseers and experts to mandate reforms on prisoners’ healthcare, psychiatric treatment, parole rights, access to law libraries and other matters.

But as California’s budget woes increasingly pit the jailers and judicial monitors in a struggle for scarce resources, the monitors have become a point of contention.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide as early as Monday whether to review the three-judge order to reduce overcrowding. Some observers of the legal tug of war over inmate treatment believe the conservative justices on the high court want to weigh in on what they may see as judicial activism. When the state appealed the reduction order, the justices suspended a two-year deadline for releasing inmates or building prisons to house them.

The standoff leaves inmates and guards wrestling with rising tensions that can lead to violent outbreaks like the Aug. 8 riot at the California Institution for Men at Chino, where inmates crammed into 200-bunk dormitories went on a rampage that injured about 250 and destroyed 1,300 beds.

At Mule Creek State Prison, inmates nearing the end of their sentences complain that the overcrowding is a dangerous inducement to fighting that can lead to disciplinary sanctions and added time.

With a September release date and reunion with his wife and children on the horizon, Henry Fernandez rarely risks leaving his bunk in the squalid gymnasium that houses 200 murderers, drug runners, gangbangers and thieves.

Tempers flare too easily among the convicts packed into the converted athletic court, especially during the lockdowns brought on by budget cuts, says the father of two from Torrance. With the guard force reduced to save money, every third day, prisoners can neither shower nor go outside for exercise and fresh air.

“I don’t get out of that bed,” said Fernandez, 47, gesturing to the top of a three-tiered bunk in the malodorous heart of a human warehouse. “In a cell, you only have your cellie to deal with. But here, you got 200 different attitudes. Some guy gets a bad letter from his wife and he’s going to be a problem for everyone around him.”

Mule Creek was designed to house 1,700 prisoners when it opened in 1987. Today it holds 3,900, with two to a cell and 500 crammed into what used to be common areas for recreation. That is typical of all the state’s prisons, which hold twice the number of inmates for which they were designed.

Prison administrators concede that the court interventions over the years have helped bring about improvements. The prisoner death rate, for example, has dropped 14% since U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson seized control of prison medical and mental healthcare in 2005 and appointed a receiver.

But state officials argue that corrections experts, not judicial monitors, should run the prisons.

“There does come a time when we have to push back in some cases — when we get to the point where we feel the court has become a burden, when we’re spending more time responding to inquiries from attorneys than on inmates,” said Benjamin T. Rice, general counsel for the corrections department.

Scott Kernan, undersecretary for prison operations, described some of the court supervision as “intrusive” and “not really recognizing the situation” from the corrections perspective.

Prisoners’ rights advocates say that the court appointees have limited power to effect change in the mammoth incarceration network that this year will consume more than $8 billion in state taxpayer dollars, the biggest budget component after education. But, they say, each of the court monitors has spurred more action than the corrections department would have taken on its own.

Corrections officials “have a 20- or 30-year history of denying that problems exist, and even when the problems are identified by the court, they have a very difficult time fixing them, through years when the budget was bad and when the budget was good,” said Donald Specter, head of the Prison Law Office that brought most of the class-action suits.

At California State Prison- Sacramento in Folsom, Associate Warden Fred Schroeder concedes that care was seriously lacking 20 years ago, when the courts began asserting authority over state operations. But he says that services have improved to meet constitutional standards and that the level of overcrowding is exaggerated because “design capacity” is defined as one inmate per cell, not double-bunking.

“If we had one inmate to a cell, would there be less problems in a prison? Maybe,” Schroeder said. “But prison is prison.... You’ve got a bunch of convicted felons in a small place, people with a lifetime of taking advantage of a situation.”

J. Clark Kelso, a law professor and veteran public policy analyst who was appointed by the court to oversee prison healthcare issues, said that overcrowding is at the root of the prisons’ failure to provide adequate care for sick inmates. More than half of the state’s prisoners have chronic conditions such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and diabetes, Kelso noted.

California has received enhanced judicial scrutiny because it was late in modernizing its prisons, Kelso said, allowing conditions to deteriorate amid political campaigns for tough-on-crime legislation but no new taxes.

“There’s been a mismatch between our desire for retribution and our willingness to commit the resources necessary to incarcerate those numbers,” Kelso said.

Prisoners, meanwhile, are watching the overcrowding case that could result in early release for one in four of them.

Michael Easter, 33, has less than a year left on his third term for car theft and drug possession, and no violent crimes on his record. “I’ve been telling my wife I’ll be home soon,” says the Sacramento native, with more hope than certainty.

Life prisoners like Thomas Guice, who has served 27 years for robbery and kidnappings committed as a juvenile, complain that the state bars them from early release even though they are the least likely to offend again, according to parole violation statistics. He sees overcrowding as a vicious circle of too many prisoners competing for too little opportunity for rehabilitation that would help them avoid offending again and returning to prison.

“In the winter we have a lot of sickness,” says the beefy Ohioan who bunks in the so-called bad beds arrayed in the day room of Mule Creek’s Cellblock 14. “And in the summer it gets hot in here and we have a lot of short tempers.”