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An inmate is seen handcuffed in a holding cage while awaiting medical treatment at the California Substance Abuse Facility in Corcoran, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009. A federal court-appointed receiver says the state need to pay $8 billion to upgrade the state's prison medical and mental health care. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
An inmate is seen handcuffed in a holding cage while awaiting medical treatment at the California Substance Abuse Facility in Corcoran, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009. A federal court-appointed receiver says the state need to pay $8 billion to upgrade the state's prison medical and mental health care. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Globe Editorial

California prison judgment shines light on human indignity Add to ...

The telephone-booth-sized cages housed mentally ill prison inmates in California.

The image should haunt the state, and the rest of the United States, which in its zeal to incarcerate wound up treating human beings, and the Constitution, as if they were worthless. The U.S. Supreme Court's willingness to stand up for the human dignity of prisoners and order the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 is a powerful rebuke to the jail-at-any-costs philosophy that was rampant in the U.S. from the mid-1970s until recently. The court held up a much less punitive Canada as an example of how to do things right.

Over three decades, the population of California's jails increased by 750 per cent, to the ludicrous total of more than 140,000, or slightly more than the population of Kingston, Ont. It was an orgy of punishment. People who had committed two violent crimes were sent away for a minimum of 25 years for a third crime, violent or non-violent, as in the famous case of a man who stole a pizza.

The result was overcrowding that made the most basic medical care or planning impossible. A gymnasium might hold 200 prisoners, watched by two or three guards. In one gym, a prisoner lay dead for several hours, the victim of an assault, before anyone noticed. People needing medical care could be gathered, 50 at a time, in a 12-foot-by-20 foot cage, and kept waiting five hours. It was a prescription for violence and the spread of disease. And they died in large numbers, at least one preventable death every six or seven days, owing to what a special three-judge court (at a lower level) had called "constitutional deficiencies," namely the lack of care of the physically or mentally ill.

It should not be surprising that a society obsessed with incarceration would lack the resources or the will to maintain a civilized standard of care for its prisoners. California spends $52,000 (U.S.) a year on its inmates, and including parole spends $11-billion, or more than on its universities. There are eight other states that are so overcrowded they pay other states to take their prisoners. California, with a large budget deficit, cannot afford to do that, or to expand its resources enough.

"Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the narrow majority of five judges. And citing precedent about the meaning of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, he said, "'The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.'"

Justice Kennedy pointed to Canada as an example of a jurisdiction that has reduced the number of prisoners without causing crime to spike, a worthwhile reminder at a time when the Canadian government is intent on expanding the prisons to accommodate more inmates. "Various available methods of reducing overcrowding - good time credits and diverting low-risk offenders to community programs - would have little or no impact on public safety," he wrote. Meanwhile, the Canadian government's tough-on-crime agenda includes 20 crime bills either passed or pending that would create minimum jail terms of six months for growing a handful of marijuana plants, reduce the use of house arrest even in some non-violent crimes and put new limits on early release.

The caging of mentally ill prisoners should remind any society tempted to incarcerate its way out of social problems of the risks ahead.

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