Federal Sentencing reporter • Vol. 22, no. 3 • February 2010
Federal Sentencing Reporter,
Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 194–199, ISSN 1053-9867 electronic ISSN 1533-8363.
©2010 Vera Institute of Justice. All rights reserved. Please direct requests for permission to photocopy
or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website,
http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/fsr.2010.22.3.194.
Everything Revolves Around Overcrowding:
The State of California’s Prisons
pRIsON lAw offICE,
California has the nation’s largest and the world’s third-
largest prison system.
In two separate class action
lawsuits, filed a decade apart, California prisoners sued
the governor and corrections officials for violating their
rights under the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual
Punishment Clause because they were being deprived of
adequate health care. In the first case,
Coleman v. Wilson
the federal court in 1995 held after a three-month trial
“that thousands of inmates suffering from mental illness
are either undetected, untreated, or both.”
In the second
Plata v. Davis
, the state of California in 2002 implic-
itly acknowledged that it had been deliberately indifferent
to the medical care needs of prisoners and stipulated to an
injunction designed to improve medical care throughout
the state’s thirty-three prisons.
The common thread in
both cases is that prisoners’ basic health care needs were
not being met, resulting in injury or death from neglect,
suicide, or malpractice at an alarming rate.
Three years after stipulating to the injunction in
the court put California’s prison medical system into receiv-
ership because it remained “broken beyond repair” and
the state had proved utterly incapable of fixing the system.
At that time, the court noted that
[t]he harm already done in this case to California’s
prison inmate population could not be more grave,
and the threat of future injury and death is virtually
guaranteed in the absence of drastic action. . . .
Indeed, it is an uncontested fact that, on average, an
inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies
every six to seven days due to constitutional deficien-
cies in the CDCR’s medical delivery system. This
statistic, awful as it is, barely provides a window into
the waste of human life occurring behind California’s
prison walls due to the gross failures of the medical
, 2005 WL 2932253, at *1.
Nearly five years after the
court placed Califor-
nia’s prisons in partial receivership and after the
court issued more than seventy additional orders to
improve mental health care,
remain at serious risk of injury or death because medical
and mental health care remain abysmal. There is one
primary reason why neither the state nor the receiver has