California balks at providing prison release plan
California officials are balking at a federal demand the state come up with a timeline for releasing inmates from its overcrowded prisons.
In a legal brief filed late Friday, lawyers for the state called the threat of an inmate release order “unwarranted” and said it oversteps the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding population caps intended to correct horrific conditions within what was then the nation’s largest prison system.
The state ignores the court's most recent order to provide information on how quickly it could begin releasing inmates. Instead, California asked a three-judge panel to suspend enforcement of crowding limits it now says it can’t meet.
The federal court’s goal is 137.5%, or no more than 112,000 inmates in prisons built to house 82,500 people. Lawyers for the state have warned jurists they do not expect to meet the June 30, 2013, deadline and will file a motion early next year seeking a higher cap.
The long-running class-action case centers on California’s ability to provide decent medical and mental health care in increasingly over-packed prisons. Separate federal courts found prison health care was so poor that an inmate a week died needlessly, while prisoners with psychiatric problems were held in metal cages to wait for space in treatment wards.
California has filed separate motions to regain control over its prison medical operations, run for six years by a court-appointed receiver. The state contends the planned opening of a large prison medical facility in Stockton will resolve most of the remaining issues of care.
To date, the state has reduced its prison population largely by requiring low-level offenders to serve their time in county jails. Since the diversion program began last October, California’s prison population has dropped by 24,000 fewer inmates.
Crowding in the state’s 33 prisons overall has fallen to 150% of capacity, but the packing varies. Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County remains at nearly 180% of capacity. It was the last prison in California to stop housing inmates in overflow areas such as gyms and day rooms – a practice it discontinued in February.
-- Paige St. John in Sacramento
Photo: Mule Creek State Prison remains at 180% of capacity. It was the last state prison to remove inmate bunks from gymnasiums and other "overflow" areas. Credit: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation