The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that California’s prisons are so overstressed, they are unconstitutionally holding prisoners without providing appropriate medical and mental health care.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in Brown v. Plata, notes that, “As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.” And suicides average one a week, he says. The Court also cited a lower court’s finding that a prisoner dies unnecessarily every six to seven days.
This is very disturbing. Even one of the dissenting votes, Justice Samuel Alito, acknowledged “particular prisoners received shockingly deficient medical care,” though he ended up opposing the Court’s final decision.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
When the government takes someone into its custody, it also takes on the responsibility of providing medical care. To deprive prisoners of adequate medical care is indeed “cruel and unusual punishment,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It means that a prisoner serving just months for a low-level crime might die from lack of proper medical attention, turning a short sentence into a sentence of death.
Whether or not the courts are the appropriate place to establish prison policy, it is undeniable that the political system in California has failed in its responsibility to manage prisons. One of the original lawsuits complaining of unconstitutional conditions was filed 21 years ago! And the legislature and a succession of governors did nothing to address the appalling conditions in California’s prisons for all those years.
These conditions are not the fault of prison officials. They don’t choose who to hold in prison. They take the prisoners sentenced under state law, and try to house them as best as possible with the dollars given them in the budget. The fault lies at the feet of politicians who have tried to have it both ways—adding years to sentences to appear tough on crime, but not appropriating the money needed to build prisons to hold the extra prisoners those policies have locked up.
However, laying blame doesn’t help. We now have to find ways to help the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC) comply with the Court’s order without putting the public at risk. No one wants the state to release prisoners who are unprepared to abide by the law when they are released. The problem is that California and most other states do not have the money to do this pre-release preparation.
A FAITH-FILLED RESPONSE
Fortunately, faith-based and community groups have been stepping up to do this work at no cost to the government!
In fact, when the Court released its opinion, I was at an Out4Life conference Prison Fellowship® sponsored in San Diego, at which hundreds of leaders from faith-based and community groups met with corrections officials and law enforcement leaders to build local coalitions to provide reentry services both before and after release. Inside prisons, volunteers will work with prisoners on preparing a life plan, writing a résumé, arranging for housing, repairing relationships with family members, and other skills necessary to make a successful transition to the free world.
After prison, these volunteer coalitions will coordinate job placement, housing, drug treatment, and medical care, and then match prisoners with a mentor to support them with accountability and practical advice. In short, these volunteers will help them become good neighbors.
This combination of accountability and assistance has been proven effective at changing the lives of prisoners and lowering recidivism. That means safer communities, fewer victims, and lower costs for the state taxpayers.
This is a vision that Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and I laid out in “Prescription for Safer Communities,” which was published by the Notre Dame Law School. I think you will find that given this Court decision—and the legislative successes Justice Fellowship®, the justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship, has experienced in the past several years—what we wrote is even more relevant now than when we wrote it.
My hat is off to Matt Cate, California’s Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Long before the Court’s order, Matt was working with Prison Fellowship to plan this Out4Life conference. His far-sighted leadership will help bring volunteers inside prisons to do the work the state just cannot afford to do on its own. And these volunteers will provide something that government employees cannot: love.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “To change someone, you must first love them, and they must know that you love them.”
You can read more about the importance of Out4Life and how California’s CDCR, Prison Fellowship, and the other groups will work to dramatically increase the programs available for prisoners in an op-ed Matt and I wrote. Thank you, Mr. Cate, for recognizing that faith-based and community groups can work in partnership with you and your department to change prisoners’ lives and make our communities safer. You are a fine example of a courageous public servant.