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California Must Clear 40,000 From Prisons

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A panel of three federal judges ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 in the next two years, finding that severe overcrowding has made prisons unsafe for inmates and staff. The judges found overcrowding the primary cause for the deaths and inadequate health care provided to sick and mentally ill prisoners. "As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days."

Federal judges Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson found that "A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the state's failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care."

California houses 167,000 people in prisons designed for half as many, and puts prisoners "in triple bunks in gyms and dayrooms not designed for housing, that contribute to the lack of care and the spread of infectious disease and that increase the incidence and severity of mental illness among prisoners."

The 184-page opinion and order adds: "Compounding problems caused by the lack of space, the space that does exist to provide health services is often woefully inadequate."

The judges cited poor conditions at Avenal State Prison, where staff "must attempt to provide care for 7,525 inmates in space designed for less than one-third of that number."

California has 45 days to provide the court with a plan.

The judges said the ruling will not force California to release thousands of prisoners immediately. They suggested alternatives to reduce overcrowding, such as reforming the parole system and transferring prisoners to other states, a method that "is already being implemented."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed providing earned credits for participation in prison programs and making technical changes to sentencing laws. Schwarzenegger says he can reduce the population by 27,000 using these means.

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