27 May 2011

Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233, the Photographs

So, according to this story in The New York Times, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has voted to uphold a two-year-old lower court order instructing the State of California to reduce its prison population to only 137% of capacity. Appended to the majority opinion were these three photographs:

California Institution for Men, August 2006. It currently holds nearly
5,600 inmates and is 97.5 percent over capacity

Holding cells for prisoners awaiting a "mental-health crisis bed,"
Salinas Valley State Prison, July 2008. Writing for the majority in
Brown v. Plata, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy stated,
"Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be
held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without
toilets…A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had
been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his
own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials
explained they had 'no place to put him.'"

Prisoners living in a gym converted into a dorm at Mule
Creek State Prison, August 2008. The words on the left
wall read, "No Warning Shot Is Required."

The photographs are credited to the California State Department of Corrections. You can find more, as well as a short background essay, here at Mother Jones.

Rights - like those appended to the U.S. Constitution - presume agreement on what sorts of entities can bear them. In other words, we must agree on who is a human if we want to talk about human rights. Richard Rorty insisted that we define that category - who counts as human and therefore as "we" - based on detailed descriptions contained in works of fiction. It seems that for some, at least, of our justices, photographs provide just such descriptions.

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Blogger Mike said...

In all the talk on this subject, I don't recall hearing anything about the underlying reasons for the over-crowding, which are a failed drug policies at all levels and using prisons to house the mentally ill.

I came across an excellent presentation today of statistics about imprisonment in the U.S. entitled "The Undiagnosed Epidemic of Incarceration" by Dirk Hanson in Addiction Inbox (http://addiction-dirkh.blogspot.com/).

Being a photographer, I was a little irritated that credit was not given for the marvelous Panopticon photo. I was also perplexed that the author would introduce any kind words into the article about Obama in regard to this topic.

06 July, 2011 14:47  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comment. I actually have a former girlfriend (I'm no longer on her Christmas card list) who studied this in California and you are right on the money in terms of the sorts of factors that give rise to overcrowding, esp. in combination with 3 strikes. And, of course, being in prison drives people mad too. So the process is endogenous.

06 July, 2011 15:50  

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