In 2005, when a federal court took a snapshot of California’s prisons, one inmate was dying each week because the state failed to provide adequate health care. Adequate does not mean state-of-the-art, or even tolerable. It means care meeting “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” in the Supreme Court’s words, so inmates do not die from rampant staph infections or commit suicide at nearly twice the national average.
No society can refer to itself as civilized while allowing thousands of its citizens (yes inmates are citizens) to be treated in such a manner as described in California. But California is not alone in its mistreatment of inmates. Idaho has its own "gladiator academy" operated by the Corrections Corporation of America.
Aside from the moral (or lack thereof) aspects of the current conditions in our prisons (and jails), Justice Alito raises the myth of crime control through mass incarceration. Alito ponders the impact of releasing so many inmates on California's crime rate.
As one of my late professors (George Beto) once told us in class, opening the doors of prisons would not significantly impact the crime rate. So Alito and others are asking the wrong question - will the crime rate change? Probably not. Will there be new crimes and victims? Probably yes.
But we also have to keep in mind that over 90% of inmates will be released from prison at some point. And a significant number will fail in the free world (California reports 70% recidivism rate). So has it occurred to Justice Alito and others that our current crime control policies are not only failing to reduce crime, but in fact may make the crime rate higher?
The decline in the crime rate since the 1990s is largely attributable to changing demographics. There are fewer people in the crime-prone and victim-prone age groups. I maintain that providing treatment for mental illness and drug addiction (including alcohol) instead of engaging in mass incarceration would further reduce the crime rate. But California broke it, now they own it.
It will be interesting to see how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Schwarzenegger v. Plata. My bet is that fear and bad policy will win out over rationality and morality.