California's Jam-Packed Prisons

"Ugly beds" stacked in gyms, tiny cages for suicidal prisoners—the photos that helped convince Supreme Court justices to downsize California's overcrowded lockups.
California's Jam-Packed Prisons

On May 23, 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that conditions in California's prisons violated the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" and affirmed a lower court's order that the state drastically reduce its inmate population.

Writing on behalf of the court's five-vote majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that this unprecedented measure had become the only way to remedy the "serious" and "uncorrected" constiutional violations against inmates in the state's correctional facilities, particularly the sick and mentally ill. "For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result," he wrote. "Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding." His decision included vivid examples of the problem, from open dorms so packed they can't be effectively monitored, to suicidal inmates "held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets."

More than 162,000 inmates currently reside in California's prison system. For years, many facilities have held nearly twice the number of prisoners they were built for. As James Sterngold wrote in an article about the overcrowded system for Mother Jones in 2008:

More than 16,000 prisoners sleep on what are known as "ugly beds"—extra bunks stuffed into cells, gyms, day rooms, and hallways. [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger has referred to the system as a "powder keg"; in October 2006, he declared a state of emergency, citing the effects of overcrowding—electrical blackouts, sewage spills, dozens of riots, and more than 1,600 attacks on prison guards in the previous year. Last year, a nonpartisan state oversight agency declared the prison system to be "in a tailspin that threatens public safety and raises the risk of fiscal disaster."

The photographs in this sideshow provide a glimpse of those extreme conditions: the E-beds (emergency beds) stacked in gyms and dayrooms, the tiny holding cells for mentally ill inmates. All of these photos, some of which were taken by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, were entered as evidence in the California prison case. Three of them (here, here, and here), were appended to the Supreme Court's majority opinion, suggesting that they had played a role in convincing Kennedy and four other justices to endorse the plan to downsize the state's prisoner population.