Could Prisoners Be Released? Overcrowding Trial Begins

The state currently houses about 156,000 inmates in 33 adult prisons originally built for 84,000.

A historic trial began in a federal courtroom in San Francisco today on whether a release of inmates from California's overcrowded prisons is needed to bring about adequate medical care.

Lawyers for inmates in two long-running civil rights lawsuits claim the only way to bring medical and mental health care up to constitutional standards is to release prisoners.

"Everyone who lives or works in the system is impacted every day" by overcrowding, Michael Bien, a lawyer for inmates, told a three-judge panel.

"Without a population reduction, the remedy will remain just a series of plans on paper," he said.

The state currently houses about 156,000 inmates in 33 adult prisons originally built for 84,000. The inmates' lawyers have asked for a reduction of 52,000 prisoners over two years, which would decrease the population to 104,000, or 130 percent of capacity.

Paul Mello, a lawyer for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials, told the court that "overcrowding is not the primary barrier to delivery of medical care."

Mello said, "This is not an overcrowding case. It is not about housing conditions." He said the state will present evidence that medical care for inmates has "improved dramatically" in recent years.

Under a federal law governing prison civil rights lawsuits, an order to reduce overcrowding can be made only by a three-judge panel and not by a trial judge alone.

The three judges hearing the case are U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento -- who are presiding over the two civil rights lawsuits -- and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

The trial has been divided into two phases. In the first phase, expected to last four weeks, the judges will decide whether overcrowding is the primary cause of deficient medical care.

A second phase, if needed, would determine whether a release of prisoners is the only practical remedy for the problem.

The current trial is only the second in the nation before a three-judge panel in an overcrowding case. The only other such trial was convened in Ohio but was resolved in a settlement before the trial ended.

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