Brown v. Plata

PETITIONER:Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al.
RESPONDENT:Marciano Plata, et al.
LOCATION: Prison Law Office

DOCKET NO.: 09-1233
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 563 US 493 (2011)
GRANTED: Jun 14, 2010
ARGUED: Nov 30, 2010
DECIDED: May 23, 2011

Carter G. Phillips – for the appellants
Donald Specter – for the appellees

Facts of the case

The Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif., filed a class-action lawsuit in April 2001 on behalf of Marciano Plata and several other prisoners, alleging that California prisons were in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishment.” Following a lengthy trial, a special panel of three federal judges determined that serious overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons was the “primary cause” for violations of the Eighth Amendment. The court ordered the release of enough prisoners so the inmate population would come within 137.5 percent of the prisons’ total design capacity. That amounts to between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates being released.


Does a court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to remedy unconstitutional conditions in its correctional facilities violate the Prison Litigation Reform Act?

Media for Brown v. Plata

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 23, 2011 (Part 2) in Brown v. Plata
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 30, 2010 in Brown v. Plata

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 23, 2011 (Part 1) in Brown v. Plata

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case arises from serious constitutional violations in California’s prison system.

The violations have persisted for years.

They remain uncorrected.

Now, this is a direct appeal to this Court from a three-judge District Court.

And the District Court’s order directs California to remedy two ongoing violations of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.

And those violations are the subject of two federal class actions.

The first case is Coleman versus Brown, and that involves prisoners with serious mental disorders.

Plata versus Brown involves prisoners with serious medical conditions.

And the order of the three-judge court that we’re reviewing here applies to both.

The appeal turns largely on whether the order complies with the statutory provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a congressional act, enacted in 1995.

The specific provision to be consulted for the case, which contains many of the phrases that the Court examines, is 18 U.S.C. 3626.

And that section contains limitations on the issuance of orders that require release of prisoners to remedy constitutional violations.

One of these requirements is that the order be issued by a three-judge court.

The Court today issues a lengthy opinion.

It determines that the order of the three-judge court does meet all the statutory requirements.

The order leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials.

But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means, the State will be required to release prisoners before their full sentences have been served.

The required reduction could be as high as 46,000 prisoners.

The State has already reduced the population by 9000 persons during this appeal.

Further reductions need not be accomplished in an indiscriminate manner.

The State may employ measures that will mitigate the impact, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders to community-based programs.

The population reduction potentially required is nevertheless of unprecedented sweep and extent.

A mistake and a premature release of even one prisoner can cause injury and harm.

And the release of prisoners in large numbers is a matter of undoubted, grave — grave concern.

Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.

For years, the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements.

In 2006, the suicide rate in California’s prison was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations.

Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months.

Prisoners suffering from physical illness also receive severely deficient care.

And the record documents numerous instances of delay and neglect leading to suffering and — and even death.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners maybe deprived the fundamental rights of liberty yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights.

Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.

Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

If Government fails to provide for the prisoners’ basic needs, the courts have the responsibility to remedy a resulting Eighth Amendment violation.

Years of efforts to remedy the violations in this case have been frustrated by severe overcrowding.

California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, and at the time of the three-judge court’s decision, the population was almost double that.

Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates.

As many as 200 may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers, as many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.

Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

When the three-judge court was convened, 12 years had passed since the appointment of the Special Master in the Coleman case.

Five years had passed since the approval of a consent decree, it was a consent decree approved by the State.

Five years had passed since the approval of that decree in the Plata case.

The State does not claim that either measure achieved a remedy.

Both the Coleman and Plata District Courts had recently undertaken additional remedial efforts, including the appointment of a Receiver in the Plata case.

The basic plan to solve the crisis through construction, hiring and procedural reforms nevertheless remained unchanged.

The Special Master and the — and the Receiver were unable to provide assurance that such efforts would yield success absent a population reduction.

The Special Master explained that many of the clinical advances painfully accomplished over the past decade are slip-sliding away as a result of overcrowding.

And the Receiver indicated that, absent a reduction in overcrowding, a successful remedial effort could all but bankrupt California.

Having engaged in remedial efforts for five years in Plata and 12 years in Coleman, the District Courts were not required to wait to see whether more recent efforts would yield equal disappointment.

The Coleman and Plata Courts had a solid basis to doubt that additional efforts to build facilities and hire staff would achieve a remedy.

Indeed, although four years have passed since the three-judge court was convened, there is still no indication that the constitutional violations have been cured.

Once the three-judge court was convened, it was required to find that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation.

The record documents the severe impact of burgeoning demand on the provision of care.

Crowding creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions that hamper effective delivery of care.

A medical expert described living quarters in converted gymnasiums or dayrooms as breeding grounds for disease.

Cramped conditions promote unrest and violence, making it difficult for prison officials to monitor and control the prison population.

On any given day, prisoners in the general prison population may become ill, thus entering the plaintiff class.

And overcrowding may prevent immediate medical attention necessary to avoid suffering, death and spread of disease.

These effects are particularly acute in the prisons’ reception centers.

These intake areas process 140,000 new or returning persons every year.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Crowding in these areas runs as high as 300% of design capacity.

Some inmates are held in a reception centers for their entire period of incarceration.

Numerous experts testified that crowding is the primary cause of the constitutional violations.

And these experts had long experience in correctional systems both in California and in other States.

The former warden of San Quentin and the former acting secretary of the California prison system concluded that crowding makes it virtually impossible for the organization to develop much less implement a plan to provide prisoners with adequate quick care.

The State points to no significant contrary evidence that it was unable to present and that it would’ve changed the outcome here.

Now, construction of new facilities — excuse me.

Construction of new facilities, in theory, could alleviate overcrowding, but the three-judge court found no realistic possibility that California would be able to build itself out of this crisis.

Particularly in light of California’s fiscal condition, the — the three-judge court deemed chimerical any remedy that would require significant additional spending by the State.

The State claims that a combination of construction, transfers of prisoners to other States and other reforms could remedy the violation.

This is a long opinion.

Aside from asserting this proposition, the State offers no reason to believe that that is so.

There’s noted attempts to remedy the violations in Plata have been ongoing for nine years.

And in Coleman, remedial expert — remedial efforts have been going on for 16 years.

At one time, it may have been possible to hope that these violations would be cured without a reduction in overcrowding.

A long history of failed remedial orders compels a different conclusion today.

The three-judge court credited substantial evidence that prison populations can be reduced in a manner that does not increase crime to a significant degree.

Some evidence indicated that reduced overcrowding can even improve public safety.

The current head of Pennsylvania’s correctional system testified that measures to reduce the prison population may actually improve on public safety because they address the problems that brought people to jail.

Expert witnesses produced statistical evidence that prison populations had been lowered without adversely affecting public safety in a number of jurisdictions.

During the pendency of this appeal, the State in fact began to implement measures to reduce the prison population.

These measures will shift thousands of prisoners from the state prisons to county jails by making certain felonies punishable by imprisonment in county jail and requiring that individuals return to custody for violating their conditions of parole serve any custody term in the county jail.

This supports the three-judge court’s conclusions that the prison population can be reduced in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety.

This Court therefore affirms the order of the three-judge court.

Yet, it notes that the three-judge court retains the authority, and that the responsibility to make further amendments to the existing order as warranted by the exercise of its sound discretion.

Proper respect for the State requires that the three-judge court exercise its jurisdiction to accord the State considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans to correct the violations in a prompt and — and effective way consistent with public safety.

The State, for instance, may wish to move to extend the deadline for the required reduction to five years from the entry of the judgment of this Court.

The State previously proposed the five-year deadline as consistent with the public safety.

The three-judge court may grant such a request provided that the State satisfies necessary and appropriate preconditions designed to ensure that a remedy is implemented without undue delay.

The three-judge court may also condition an extension of time on the State’s ability to meet interim benchmarks for improvement in provision of medical and mental health care.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

If significant progress is made toward remedying the underlying constitutional violations, that progress may demonstrate that further population reductions are not necessarily or are less urgent than previously believed.

Were the State to make this showing, the three-judge court could consider whether it is appropriate to extend or modify the timeline.

These observations reflect the fact that the three-judge court’s order, like all continuing equitable decrees, must remain open to appropriate modification.

They are not intended to cast doubt on the validity of the basic premise of the existing order.

The medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment.

This extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding.

The relief ordered by the three-judge court is required by the Constitution and was authorized by Congress in the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The State shall implement the order without further delay.

The judgment of the three-judge court is affirmed.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas joins.

Justice Alito has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice joins.