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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.

The San Jose Mercury News which, for as long as I can remember, has been the standard bearer for Bay Area reporting on prison issues produced a short multimedia piece on Monday.


The presentation is mainly a prison official’s description of the conditions, needs and startling figures at California Institute for Men, Chino. This facility was the scene of riots in August. It is also the CDCr Reception Center for Southern California, which means all new men processed into the system will first go here, before given security classification and shipped elsewhere. Of course, the mix of over-population, diverse and historically antagonistic groups, and non-permanence leads to a tense institution.

My main problem with the piece however is that I – unlike the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – cannot ignore recent history, lobbying, political action committee millions and the resultant harsh sentencing.

Since the 1980s, the CCPOA – the prison guards union – bolstered its membership from 2,600 to over 45,000, drew in union fees to swell its coffers and began hurling them at victims rights groups, tough on crime politicians and public fear campaigns.

The CCPOA grew year-on-year as well as any corporation. It’s shareholders however were not a disparate public, but a 30,000 strong (comparatively) homogeneous group within a burgeoning prison industry and a Napoleon-complex.

Prior to the mid 80s the CCPOA had virtually no political capital. They were a small union in a small state sector … and they were largely ignored. By 1992 the CCPOA operated the state’s second largest PAC. By the year 2000 the CCPOA was the pariah of the union community in California. The CCPOA bankrolled and won ballot initiatives that meant increased prison funding and construction. Other unions, particularly the teachers, were not blind to this boom in incarceration … all the while public education funds dwindled.

All of this is very difficult for me to forget.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to legislate to put a cap on union spending during his first year in office, he was in fact only interested in controlling the rampant CCPOA. It wasn’t a classic anti-labour Republican maneuver but rather the absolute necessary move if California was to reign in prison spending. In some respects it was the politics of a progressive! Schwarzenegger failed doubly. The initiative was heavily defeated and he forced the CCPOA and other unions closer together by virtue of a shared enemy.

The CCPOA took advantage of the situation and stepped back into line with the agendas of other unions. For years it had unilaterally forced its agenda through. But the CCPOA could see the ‘good times’ were coming to an end. No new prisons have been built in California since 1998. That figure explains the overcrowding, but also reflects recent political and public rejection of yet more warehousing without rehabilitation (as has been the norm).

So while we can all share in a dismay, even disgust in the failure of government to provide adequate housing or programs for those it takes into custody, we should all be sharing in the knowledge of how this situation came about. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; the CCPOA are guilty as hell – the rank and file change, the leadership less so, but the organisation remains the same.

This is what I think of when I see correctional officers under stress and duress … I think that their union sold them out a long time ago.

The CCPOA made it’s bed.

UC Berkeley’s Dept. of Governmental Studies provides this brief but comprehensive history of the CCPOA.

The San Jose Mercury News has its own Photoblog.


California Institute for Men at Chino, 2008 (Prior to Riot). Photo Credit: CDCR

Michael Shaw over at the excellent BAGnewsNotes pointed out a rather bizarre anomaly in our image-saturated world. There exist barely any photographs of the prison riot at the California Institute for Men at Chino that occurred this weekend.

Given that Shaw has his hand firmly on the newswire pulse of America I’ll take him at his word … photojournalist coverage of this significant riot was is scant.

I even think that the image Shaw presents is a concession; a still from film footage.

Today, the Los Angeles Times published this image showing the aftermath of the riot.


Photo: A view from outside the fence after weekend rioting at the California Institute for Men at Chino shows a dorm with a hole burned through its roof and a yard littered with mattresses and other debris. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

The BBC was quick to cover the riot. Most news sources framed the riot as a result of racial tension, but in truth those tensions only came to surface due to inexcusable and acknowledged overcrowding. In 2007, Doyle Wayne Scott, a former Texas corrections chief consulting on California prison security reported that overcrowding at the California Institute for Men at Chino created “a serious disturbance waiting to happen.”


Overcrowding is a problem that ignites other problems, and represents a serious issue that has no easy answers. Some prison reform activists would be wiling to see new (temporary) facilities built to ease the tensions, but this is an unlikely scenario as trust between they and the legislature, Governor’s office, CDCr and CCPOA is low. Recent history has taught us that when new prisons are built, they are filled and calls for more prisons follow. The solution is to change the laws that over the past two decades have warehoused increasing numbers of non-violent offenders.

One of the other depressing aspects to this story is that the racial tensions are apparently the result, partly, of enforced desegregation at Chino. Prison populations operate on strict codes and it would seem that top-down-enforcement of an anti-racist policy doesn’t change the attitudes of the men only agitates their existing prejudices, distrust and expected antagonisms toward one another.

My humble suggestion to work against these deep-seated hatreds would be to operate smaller facilities with immediate access to education programs. Sociological models taught as part of a basic curricula are revelatory for many prisoners. Many inmates, given the tools and the logic to explain their oppositions will identify other ways of seeing race.

It is true that some prisoners don’t want to rehabilitate, but they are in the minority. Often it is simply the case that race for this population has never been discussed in complex or nuanced terms.

Here’s some video of the aftermath.

Thanks to Scott Ortner and Stan Banos for the tips on this story.


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