On May 24, 2011, in a five to four split decision the United States Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, Brown v. Plata, held that because of the horrendous conditions at many of California’s prisons, especially facilities and units which house prisoners with mental disabilities, that California prison officials can no longer be trusted with policing themselves, and therefore, must reduce their prison population by federal court order.
In increasing numbers many enlightened and progressive jurist are now recognizing that because people sentenced to prison have no one to speak on their behalf, and that politicians caring only to be re-elected have no interest in protecting the rights and dignity of their prison population, that the judiciary is now forced to step in under the Eighth Amendment to United States Constitution to protect prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment. The Constitution under the Eighth Amendment states that no one shall be subject to cruel and unusual punishment and the conditions of many of our nations jails are just that cruel and inhuman.
Because all of the States have cut back on funds allocated to their prison systems, more and more prisoners are languishing under prison conditions which are inhuman and violate the Constitution.
As Justice Kennedy writing for the majority wrote, “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.”
If society expects and demands that a prisoner upon release live a good and law abiding life, society must treat the prisoner like a human being and afford that person every civil dignity possible under the conditions of incarceration.
As the Court noted, in California inmates were kept in man- sized cages until a bed became available or inmates with mental disorders standing “in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.”
In 2007, here in New Jersey one very enlightened and progressive Federal District Court Judge, the Honorable Katherine S. Hayden, held that the conditions at the Passaic County Jail in which federal prisoners were being held awaiting trials or sentences, was “shameful”. As Justice Hayden wrote in her written opinion, “...forces the question of how long we continue to turn a deaf ear, mine included. It has become a tired fact of life in these courtrooms that Passaic County Jail is overcrowded, is breaking down, and is a very rough place to serve time.”
As noted, the Passaic County Jail was noted for severe overcrowding, with hundred of inmates packed into dorm like rooms, inches apart. The jail had infestations of rats, mice, and other assorted types of insects. The jail was notorious for serving food not fit for human consumption, with dead insects and rat and mice dropping in the food. Because of the food many inmates received little or no nourishment.
Because of the deplorable conditions of the jail Judge Hayden correctly reduced the jail sentence which she imposed upon a defendant who was incarcerated under these cruel and harsh conditions.
Because of Judge Hayden’s courageous decision, and the United States Attorneys concern that she would reduce other prison sentences with other defendants serving time at the Passaic County Jail, the United States Marshall Service pulled out all of the federal inmates from that facility.
It is time that more judges take into account in sentencing defendants the conditions that are being imposed in our local, county, state and federal jails, and act with courage and compassion for speaking out and protecting a segment of society that has no voice.
Law Office of Vincent J. Sanzone, Jr.
Dated: May 25, 2011, Elizabeth, N.J.