UPDATE: 06/27/2012 – The Prison Law Office (PLO), Berkeley represented the prisoners of California. PLO pointed me in the direction of this full gallery of images that were available to defense and prosecution teams.

On May 23rd, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) affirmed – with a 5-4 majority – a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. California has two years to shrink the number of prisoners by more than 33,000. California currently has 143,335 prisoners, which is still significantly less than the 166,000+ the state housed at its peak five years ago.

Brown vs. Plata (formerly Schwarzenegger vs. Plata) was a landmark case in U.S. legal history and, I would hesitate a guess, the largest release program of convicted individuals ever enacted. And it is the right decision.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case at SCOTUSblog.

I want to draw attention to one particular aspect of the ruling: Justice Kennedy’s inclusion of photographs in the appendix.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

Two of the photographs Kennedy included show prisoners being housed in a gymnasium. These are open dorms and clearly unsuitable for such numbers. The lawsuit however, was centred on standards of medical care; it was stresses of overcrowding that led to the drop in healthcare standards to the point of “cruel and unusual punishment” and the associated violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Justice Kennedy in a sincere way was trying to illustrate a point. An editorial at The New York Times is on board:

Looking at the photos, there should be no doubt that the conditions violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

That’s a bit prescriptive for me but I’ll forgo that.

The images are quite unremarkable inasmuch as they are the norm. News media has shown images from California prisons like these for years. So much so, the California Department of Corrections provided a gallery of official “Prison Overcrowding Photos” (now with added fisheye lens!)

In 2006, Max Whittaker photographed overcrowded gymnasiums at Folsom prison. In 2007, Justin Sullivan went to Mule Creek State Prison. After the verdict, Gary Friedman‘s photo gallery ran in the LA Times.

The third picture (below) shows something a little different. It depicts the apparatus of inadequate care. According to the Court’s opinion: ‘Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had “‘no place to put him.’”

It’s impossible to say what sort of reaction publication and underlining of these three images means for anyone reading-up on the case. Dahlia Lithwick for Slate asks Do photographs of California’s overcrowded prisons belong in a Supreme Court decision about those prisons?:

“Whether those photos will change anyone’s mind about the morality of prison overcrowding is open to debate. Whether they should may be the more important, and more interesting, question.” Lithwick wonders, “Should the court be using visual aids to prompt emotional responses or be inviting citizen fact-finding in the first place?” The weakness of this question is in its presumption that it is only through an emotional reaction that a viewer will conclude make-shift open dormitories and cages are unacceptable. Surely, logic dictates that these are not beneficial management strategies, let alone conducive to rehabilitation.

Photographs of overcrowded prisons in California have been available for a long time for anyone who cared to search. These three are representative of the failed system, and quite honesty Kennedy had thousands to choose from.

For a full round up of the ruling visit the phenomenal Prison Law Blog.

UPDATED: 06.12.2011

Previously, I was under the impression that only three photographs were used in the Brown vs. Plata deliberations, but according to Mother Jones, the two images below were also items of the appendix.

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