(CN) – A three-judge panel has ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 over the next two years, saying severe overcrowding has made prisons unsafe for both inmates and staff.
U.S. District Judges Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson found overcrowding to be the primary cause behind the lack of adequate health care provided to sick and mentally ill prisoners.
“A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the states failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care,” the judges wrote. “As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.”
California currently houses 167,000 in prisons designed for half as many, and crowding has forced prisons to house inmates “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.”
“Compounding problems caused by the lack of space, the space that does exist to provide health services is often woefully inadequate,” they wrote, citing the 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 reduction plan. The judges said the ruling will not force California to immediately release thousands of prisoners, but suggested alternative measures to reduce population crowding, such as reforming the parole system and transferring prisoners to other states, a method that “is already being implemented.”
In addition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed providing earned credits for participation in prison programs and making technical changes to sentencing laws, and intends to reduce the population by 27,000 prisoners using these means.