Sunday, March 1, 2009

Three Judges, a Special Master, 55,000 Prisoners, and $8 Billion

Three law suits have been filed complaining of poor prison conditions, overcrowding, and inadequate medical care in California. The prisons, with a design capacity of 84,000 inmates, currently host a prison population of 158,000. Prisoners are often tripled bunked in the prison gyms. About 42,000 prisoners are serving life sentences because of California’s three strike law.

Two of the suits have just surfaced with inexplicable recommendations.

The first, by a panel of three judges, gives a “Great Out of Jail Free Card” to 55,000 prisoners over the next three years to reduce prison overcrowding and reduce prison size to 101,000. They held the prison overcrowding constituted cruel and unusual punishment violated the 8th and 14th Amendments.

The three judges are Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, and District Court Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton. All three were appointed to the bench by President Carter.

We respect freedom of association in America, but also recognize that membership in an organization such as the ACLU or Federalist Society sends a message about the person’s perspectives. Let the record show I am in neither.

Judge Reinhardt is the most liberal of all the judges on the Ninth Circuit - truly an impressive achievement. He declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. He figures that no matter how often the Supreme Court overrules the Ninth Circuit (24 out of 25 one year), they can only hear so many cases a year. Judge Reinhardt’s wife, Ramona Ripston, is the long time, revered Executive Director of the Southern California ACLU.

Judge Henderson had struck down California’s Proposition 209, which outlawed affirmative action in the state’s public universities, and more recently held that marine mammals were entitled to greater protection than the Navy’s use of sonar in national defense. Both decisions were overturned by the Supreme Court.

Judge Henderson held in 2005 that California was in violation of the 8th Amendment in failing to provide adequate medical care to the prison inmates. He appointed Professor Clark Kelso as Special Master in 2008.

Judge Karlton recently held unconstitutional the 2006 Sex Offenders Registration and Notification Act. The statute made it a federal offense for sex offenders to fail to register in one estate and then move to another. His reasoning was not deterred by the fact that 18 other district courts and two Federal Appellate courts had upheld the statute. He held that the statute was unconstitutional because it did not meet the Supreme Court’s standards for interstate commerce, eventhough the Court has long held federal jurisdiction attaches to crimes crossing state lines, such as interstate flight or violation of the Mann Act.

He had formerly headed the Sacramento ACLU.

Some things I just can’t make up.

Professor Kelso recently petitioned the court, that is, Judge Henderson, to approve his $8 billion recommendations to improve prison medical care in California, and to hold Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Comptroller John Chiang in contempt of court for failing to improve prison medical conditions. He sought fines of $2 million per day for the two officials. The Governor wants to act in a fiscally responsible way, realizing that the State is essentially bankrupt while the Legislature in May refused to fund the projects with lease revenue bonds.

Seven new facilities, called chronic care facilities and each the size of 10 WalMarts, would be erected to house 10,500 inmate patients while another 33 state prisons would witness substantial medical unit upgrades. The seven new facilities would be in Chino, Folsom, San Diego, Solano, Stockton, Ventura and Whittier.

Professor Kelso proposed that the hospital environment should be “holistic” in expression with natural light: “In the place of sterile prison corridors or barren, large-scale yards, both staff and patients should experience landscaped courtyards and places of rest and respite.”

The exterior perimeter should be landscaped to hide the fences and external surveillance systems.

The new facilities would include open air court yards and workout rooms with exercise machines and space for aerobics and yoga classes. Patients in the outdoor courtyards would be encouraged to participate in recreational therapy programs such as horticulture.

Gymnasiums would be built with basketball courts and music rooms as well as a crafts room, game room and a therapy kitchen. Outdoor running tracks would also be built.

This isn’t a blueprint for prison care, but for a spa at the Ritz Carlton. The prisoners would be receiving better medical care than many Californians.

Professor Kelso justified his recommendations by looking to the new state facility at Coalinga State Hospital. Coalinga though is not a normal state prison or prison hospital. Technically, it is not a prison at all, but a “civil confinement” facility for sexual predators, who have served their prison sentences, but are adjudicated too dangerous to release into the general population. Thus, while their freedom may be restricted, they are entitled to amenities and a life style unavailable to prison inmates.

Professor Kelso recently announced that he would reluctantly scale back his proposals. He still doesn’t seem to understand that these are prisoners, not model citizens, much less that the state is broke.

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