Sustained Outrage

Earlier this week, a New York Times editorial headlined “The Crime of Punishment” assailed the widespread overcrowding of American prisons. With the U.S. Supreme Court to take up an earlier ruling that overcrowding in California’s prisons is the “primary cause” of what the editorial called “gruesome inadequacies in medical and mental health care” for prisoners, the Times urged the justices to uphold the lower court’s decision.

In 2005, when a federal court took a snapshot of California’s prisons, one inmate was dying each week because the state failed to provide adequate health care. Adequate does not mean state-of-the-art, or even tolerable. It means care meeting “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” in the Supreme Court’s words, so inmates do not die from rampant staph infections or commit suicide at nearly twice the national average.

The editorial continues:

Four years ago, when the number of inmates in California reached more than 160,000, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a “state of emergency.” The state’s prisons, he said, are places “of extreme peril.”

Last year, under a federal law focusing on prison conditions, the lower court found that overcrowding was the “primary cause” of gruesome inadequacies in medical and mental health care. The court concluded that the only relief under the law “capable of remedying these constitutional deficiencies” is a “prison release order.”

Today, there are almost twice as many inmates in California’s 33 prisons as they were designed for. The court ordered the state to reduce that population by around 30 percent. While still leaving it overcrowded, that would free up space, staff and other vital resources for long overdue medical and mental health clinics.

Finally, the Times’s editorial board concluded:

Among experts, as a forthcoming issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy relates, there is a growing belief that less prison and more and better policing will reduce crime. There is almost unanimous condemnation of California-style mass incarceration, which has led to no reduction in serious crime and has turned many inmates into habitual criminals.

America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure — the result of an expensive approach to criminal justice shaped by fear-driven ideology. California’s prisons embody this overwhelming failure.

As we’ve previously noted, West Virginia’s prisons and jails are overcrowded, and the national prison population continues to grow even though crime is down.

And just this week we had a reminder of what health conditions inside West Virginia’s jails can be like, as the Wheeling Intelligencer reported that eight inmates at the Northern Regional Jail are being treated for scabies.