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Herdt: Is denial phase over for state prison crowding issue?

Back in 2008, on the opening day of a trial that would lead to a crisis the state of California is finally being forced to confront, an attorney representing inmates began showing the court a video depicting a prison gymnasium filled wall-to-wall with triple-decked bunk beds.

An attorney representing the state objected, calling the video “hearsay evidence” of prison overcrowding.

The plaintiffs' attorney responded that the video had been taken from the website of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

At that, federal District Judge Lawrence Karlton, incredulous that the source of such damning evidence was the state itself, allowed the showing of the video to proceed.

State officials were in denial then that the federal courts would intervene to relieve overcrowding in California prisons, and they remained largely in denial for nearly five more years — until Aug. 2, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block an order that the state reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of prison capacity by the end of the year.

The state had been in denial throughout that 2008 trial, when it didn't bother to contest the allegation that California prisons were seriously overcrowded.

It sought to argue only that it could adequately deliver medical and mental health care despite those conditions.

It remained in denial after the special three-judge panel found that overcrowding was the principal cause of inadequate health care and initially ordered the population reduction.

Back then, state officials were smugly confident the U.S. Supreme Court would never let such an order stand.

After all, Congress, concerned about a proliferation of lawsuits, had passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1996. It says judges must find “the least intrusive means necessary” to correct any violation of rights.

With that law on the books, California officials believed this conservative U.S. Supreme Court would tell the panel of judges in California that their order was too intrusive.

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