In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held in late May that California’s overcrowded prisons violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, so that state must drastically reduce its number of inmates.
John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association (JHA), which monitors Illinois prisons, says the ruling holds important lessons about Illinois’ own overcrowded prison system, which holds nearly 49,000 prisoners in facilities designed for about 31,000. Maki concedes Illinois’ situation is not as dire as California’s – that state has more than 143,000 inmates in prisons designed for 80,000 – but he says Illinois is headed in the same direction.
“While we’re not California, we sometimes aspire to be California-like in our sentencing policy,” he says. “I think we need for legislators in particular to think really hard when they pass a new law or lengthen a sentence, and ask, ‘Is there evidence for that?’ If there’s not good evidence, or there’s a better way to handle it without prison time, that’s what they need to pursue.”
The case in California arose from two class-action lawsuits alleging that prisoners were not receiving adequate health care and mental health treatment. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that, “If a prison deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”
Maki’s group regularly visits Illinois prisons and records the conditions they find. A visit to the all-female minimum-security prison in Decatur on April 12, 2011, revealed that only the sickest prisoners get to see a doctor due to understaffing, and the waitlist to see a dentist was more than 250 prisoners long.
“One health care staff member told JHA that things have been ‘really difficult’ in the past year because of the vacancies and increased population,” JHA’s report notes.
A March 3, 2010, visit to the all-male medium-security prison in Lincoln revealed similar problems with understaffing. The prison has only five registered nurses to fill 12 available positions, and one RN warned, “The workload has increased tremendously and inevitably things are going to happen.”
“She is afraid she will make a mistake in care because of overwork,” the report says.
Maki points to two lessons gleaned from the California case.
“The first is that the state can’t build its way out of overcrowding,” he says. “The days of adding more and more prisons are over. We just can’t afford it.”
The second lesson, he says, is that overcrowding is “an assault on human rights.”
“It matters how we treat people when they’re in prison because they come back,” Maki says, referring to Illinois’ 52-percent recidivism rate. “About 95 percent of people who go to prison come back, and if we don’t respect their basic human rights, it’s asking for them not to respect human rights when they come back.”
But Maki says that the prisons themselves are not at fault. They are the line of last defense, he says, adding, “Prisons don’t send people to prison. Counties, prosecutors and bad laws do that.”
He says Illinois must rethink its entire justice system, including “tough on crime” laws that mandate harsh punishment for relatively minor crimes but don’t seem to have any effect on crime rates or public safety.
“The hard part is that this is an intellectual argument, and the ‘law and order’ movement is based on emotions,” Maki says. “Whenever you have emotions, it’s going to trump the intellectual argument. But we can’t view prisons in isolation. …If we’re really interested in reforming prisons, it’s got to begin not just at sentencing, but with issues like better schools, better jobs and safer communities. That’s the real key. When we’re only focused on prisons, everyone loses.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Supreme Court opinion (PDF): http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-1233.pdf