California Institution for Men Aug. 7, 2006. Photo was part of SCOTUS decision ordering California to reduce its prison population.

Update May 25 More photos from a law firm involved in the case.

Update 3:16 p.m. From California Watch, a look at how the state might meet the order to drastically decrease its prison population.

Original post
KQED’s Joshua Johnson sat down with Scott Shafer, who covers criminal justice issues for us, to discuss today’s major SCOTUS ruling upholding a lower court’s order that California must reduce its prison population. (Listen to the interview here.)The Supreme Court declared the state must shed its prison system of some 46,000 inmates (Update May 25: That was the number cited in the decision, but the actual reductions required might be more or less depending on the prison population at any time) within two years. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the majority.

Shafer explains that state prisons are at 200% capacity, with twice as many inmates incarcerated as the system was built to hold. The ruling did not dictate how California should comply with the order — whether it should release inmates, transfer them out of state to for-profit prisons, change its parole rules, or take other actions. Cash-strapped California will not be able to simply throw money at the problem, Shafer says, and will probably have to decide on a combination of policy shifts that can meet the required reduction.

One thing that might help expedite changes: The ruling probably didn’t come as a surprise, Shafer says, as it was clear during oral arguments that a majority of justices had run out of patience with the state, giving policymakers a clear signal to start preparing for compliance.

Also of note: The majority took the extraordinary action of including three photos in the official opinion:

California Institution for Men Aug. 7, 2006.
Mule Creek State Prison Aug. 1, 2008
Salinas Valley State Prison July 29, 2008 Correctional Treatment Center (dry cages/holding cells for people waiting for mental health crisis bed)

As for the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, Shafer called it “bombastic and scathing.” Scalia characterized the 2009 order to reduce the number of inmates as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” and contended that its affirmation would put public safety at risk.

KQED’s Joshua Johnson and Scott Shafer discuss today’s SCOTUS ruling
[audio:|titles=SCOTUS Prisons]

Today’s Supreme Court Ruling on Prison Overcrowding Explained; Prison Photos From Decision 25 May,2011Jon Brooks

  • Martin Mittelmark

    It is only when catastrophic consequences will occur that the public and government officials take notice and decide to move. As long as suffering does not personally effect them they prefer the status quo, especially when unsympathetic victims are baring the brunt of brutal policies.
    My hat is off to the justices who realized this fact. Besides what is likely to happen is that their decision will stimulate construction, make for some policy changes having to do with enforcement, and perhaps even make room for more white collar criminals to find space in a prison system where justice turns a blind eye.

    • Bobbi Siegelbaum

      Well said! I totally agree.

  • Bob Prentiss

    If we treat criminals who we know will be returning to our streets as pack animals, why would anyone in his right mind expect them to return rehabilitated? Reminds me of that old movie “We shoot horses, don’t we?” Shame on the Cro-Magnon dissenters.

  • Henry Taylor

    Let me get this straight? Our prison system is called a correctional facility? Yeah Right!!

  • baby ouseph

    We Indians are sorry for this state of prisoners, please do something humanitarian help to change United States Policies

  • Ann Stuart Thacker

    This truly points out the criminalization of two diseases, namely, addiction and mental illness. I wonder how many less prisoners we would have if we treated these diseases. It would be less expensive and would actually have the possibility of true rehabilitation for those who follow their treatment plans.

  • Lilee1

    We create an economy without hope for the working class, gambling institutions to raise state funds while cutting taxes on billion dollar corporations and individuals, drive the hopeless to drugs and ignorance, cut pell grants, send jobs to cheap and slave labor over seas, and then contemptuously put criminals (And who are the real criminals?) in wire boxes while the ugly supreme court members say the ruling puts California’s fearful & obedient at risk. No wonder Guantanamo stays open. The United States of America is mediaeval, or is it mediaevil? Oh, and don’t forget our ever-increasing monitoring system to find “enemy combatants” that is, anyone who might think a working man deserves a fighting chance. Lock-’em up. Shut ’em up. It’s all for your own safety. Go watch your sports. Work longer for less. Send your sons to some dust bowl to die with honor for Halliburton. Obey those rules & you’ll never end up in an 8 by 4 ft cage.

    • gary gentry

      dear lilee1, you stated the case very beautifully. i especially liked the medieval pun. nobody who has not actually been there can know how really horrible it can be. i have been there. forty years ago i began to suspect something was fishy when it was our president who threw out the first baseball to start the season. i made up an aphorism: the romans had free bread & circuses- we have welfare & television. it was good reading your stuff. gary

  • Ben

    OMG, how anybody could look at those “cages” and think that’s in any way okay is baffling.

  • shawn

    that is a crime . remove pot smugglers ,car theives and anyone who ha not committed a felony with a gun first . second remove everyone who was arrested on circumstantial evidence and then release people in for not paying child support and for bad checks and petty repeated ofenders .. I bet that place clears out quick. America prisons makes money off american or foreign [ human flesh ] prisoners per bed. Now Cali is finally in trouble . The conditions above would have some higher ups especially people who put petty crimes a way answering many many questions. that mess above is sickening.

  • Vic

    It is still better than a what an average citizen has in developing countries. I oppose our resources being spent on these so called human beings when they violate our rules and regulations….they should be shot and not served in “humane” conditions. I will gladly rid the society of these bastards

    • Portia

      Everyone is a human being, no matter what crimes have been committed. It is the moral duty of human societies to provide the necessities of life to the incarcerated,:including decent-sized living space, clean food and water, physical and mental activity for stimulation, and medical and mental health supports. To treat a human being as an object to be abused or thrown away is a crime, especially if committed by lawmakers with the tacit approval of citizens.

      • weezilgirl

        I worked in a prison as a teacher. Every day I told the students that I believe that everyone of us has a spark somewhere down in us and I intended to help them/us find that spark. I also respected them and, in turn, was respected by the offenders. My students fought less and acted out less after they returned to their “houses”. I believe it was because we interacted as human beings first..teacher and student next.

  • Lee

    The truly sad part of this issue is that it was a 5-4 vote. How could anyone honestly look at those photos alone and say that there is nothing wrong with the way inmates are housed. Think for a minute about what all these justices were previed to that will never be released to the public. God Bless America…. Cause this is oppression on a whole new level

  • Jen

    It is time to legalize drugs and utilize out patient clinics and half way house for treatment of drug abuse and mental health issues. This type of holocaust style incarcerations creates drug abuse and mental illness. I am sure people enter prison much better citizens then they are when they exit. It fascinates me that 70% on Americans identify as Christians and are interested in projecting their morality in the drug codes but turn a blind eye to this immorality. It is time for the US legal system to get out of the prison economy and deal with the reality that it has created.

    • weezilgirl

      Great post, Jen!

  • Joanne

    Please stop putting none violet offender in correctional center I have a child in RCCC and every day he has to watch out for the system is screwed. Instead of the state chargin 47,000.00 to house my son for 15 vicodine. and it cost me 13,000.00 to represent him. you even had him pick up in New Mexico just because he was a subject of interest in a Robbery. my son was in another state at the time of the robbery so if you think the system is fair or parital your wrong. That kind of money needs to go to our Education and After school program Park and Rec I can just go on and on……… Gov brown Stand up and Do something that would help everyone our system is fucked-up………….,..


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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