Consequences of compliance: Trans-incarceration in the aftermath of Brown v. Plata

We are 5 and half years removed from one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of my young lifetime. Brown V. Plata, handed down May 2011, ordered California to reduce prison overcrowding to a constitutionally permissible level of 137.5% above design capacity. (CA prisons had been operating around 200% above design capacity). CA prisons had become so overcrowded they were failing to provide adequate, basic, — or even any, healthcare to prisoners. As federal judge Thelton Henderson examined, “The 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 a uncontested fact that, on average, an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies 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 delivery system.” The lack of accessible healthcare to inmates had become another unconscionable feature of CA’s prisons crisis. The opinion of the Supreme Court noted that “prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.” The stage for compliance was set, CA had to re-inject human dignity into the treatment of the carceral population while simultaneously remedying constitutional violations against cruel and unusual punishment. The strategy for compliance however wasn’t concerned with confronting these human rights violations, but rather shifted the burden of incarceration to county level jails for those convicted of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sex registerable offenders, as well as those who violated terms of their parole or probation. Local jails however were not equipped with better health care resources, in fact it may be said they are even less prepared to deal with influx of thousands of new prisoners. Jails function as pre-adjudicatory confinement centers, for those who can’t post bail, and usually incarcerate misdemeanor offenders on sentences of less than 12 months. Due to the relatively short stay of inmates in country jails the facilities don’t have expansive medical units. So CA complied to the Supreme Court decision condemning their lack of adequate health care by sending thousands of inmates to facilites that don’t have adequate health care systems. Hmm. Does this seem like a sustainable trend? (The answer is no, folks.) All the while this strategy of Correctional Realignment was touted as progressive and helping to facilitate trends of decarceration statewide. But as the graphic below shows, this trend is more aptly described as trans-incarceration, not decarceration. (graph courtesy of Anjuli Verma, Ph.D.) CA merely kicked the can down the road to get the Supreme Court of their back. Ideally, this would have been a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate our prison system and pursue alternative incarceration policies. Alas, reform was put on the back burner as CA trimmed around the edges of mass incarceration without tackling the underlying issues.trans-carceration

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