Resource: Litigation Over Prison Medical Services

By: Aaron Rappaport

December 1, 2010

Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal

On August 4, 2009, a specially constituted panel of three federal judges issued a remarkable ruling requiring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) to release approximately forty thousand inmates from the state prison system. The inmate release order represents the culmination of nearly two decades of litigation in two separate suits. One suit, originally called Coleman v. Wilson, challenged the constitutionality of the mental health care services provided in California's prisons. Another suit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, challenged the constitutionality of the medical care services (apart from mental health care) in California's prisons.

This introductory essay provides some background on the two cases at the heart of the litigation, offers a preliminary evaluation of the final inmate release order, and adds some final comments about the possibility of long-term prison reform. Part One suggests that the order was necessary and appropriate given the State's inability or refusal to take meaningful steps towards remedying serious and persistent constitutional violations. Part Two contends that the opinion is well-reasoned and should withstand several challenges the State will likely bring on appeal. Finally, Part Three concludes that, despite the significant potential impact of the inmate release order, the prospect of long-term reform in California's prison system remains, sadly, dim.