Brown v. Plata
By: Melissa Riess on June 17, 2011
“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” With these words, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Brown v. Plata, affirmed a lower court decision finding that the standard of medical care and living conditions in California’s prisons violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In the 5-4 decision, issued May 23, the court affirmed a three-judge panel’s finding that other efforts by the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to remedy the constitutional violations had failed, and that the Department’s only remaining recourse is to reduce California’s prison population.
This decision is the latest in a class action lawsuit that began in 2001. People incarcerated in California prisons sued the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for failing to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, plaintiffs requested as a remedy that the state cap the prison population until it could bring the level of care to constitutional standards. The statute provides that such a remedy may be imposed only on a finding by a panel of three federal judges that the primary cause of the constitutional violations is prison overcrowding.