Supreme Court Considers Overcrowding's Effect On Medical Care In California's Prisons

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering an order requiring California prisons to release 40,000 inmates because overcrowding has limited prisoners' access to health care.

The Associated Press reports that the justices "appeared ready Tuesday to endorse" the order. "The justices heard an extended argument in a case over long-standing violations of constitutional rights in a state prison system that last year averaged nearly a death a week that might have been prevented or delayed with better medical care. The state's 33 adult prisons hold more than 144,000 inmates. The facilities were designed to hold about 80,000. A federal court has ordered the population cut to around 110,000 inmates within two years, but the state calls the reduction too much, too soon" (Sherman, 11/30).

The Wall Street Journal:"Two decades have passed without a fix for California's inmate medical care, which the state has conceded violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of 'cruel and unusual punishments.'" A special three-judge panel last year "found in a 184-page opinion that the lack of facilities and medical personnel left severe physical and psychological conditions untreated for months or years" (Bravin, 12/1).

NPR: "The Supreme Court has long held that prisoners are, in essence, wards of the state. Since they cannot find or consult doctors on their own, they must be provided basic medical care while in the state's custody. ... On Tuesday in the Supreme Court, lawyer Carter Phillips, representing California, said the lower court had not given adequate weight to public safety concerns. ... Based on the tenor of Tuesday's argument, it seemed likely that Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Californian, will cast the deciding vote. He noted the 'massive expert testimony' that overcrowding is the principal cause of the state's failure to provide adequate medical care" (Totenberg, 11/30).

This is part of Kaiser Health News' Daily Report - a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. The full summary of the day's news can be found here and you can sign up for e-mail subscriptions to the Daily Report here. In addition, our staff of reporters and correspondents file original stories each day, which you can find on our home page.