At a conference organized by the University of San Francisco Law Review this past Saturday, lawyers and prison reform experts gathered to discuss California's catastrophically overcrowded prisons and the pair of lawsuits that have brought the state's correctional system to its legal knees. The legendary federal judge Thelton Henderson, in whose court one of the two epic legal battles originated, gave the keynote speech, promising those in attendance that he was ready to "go the long haul" in his battle to create a constitutional health care system for the state's 160K plus prisoners, a system in which currently prisoners die routinely from treatable conditions due to the lack of adequate facilities, staff, and management capacity (Read Bob Egelko's coverage in the SFChon).
The effort to create decent health care will likely take years and involve as large a scale restructuring of the state's health care economy as has ever been taken at one time. Along with a parallel case involving mental health in the prisons, the litigation has raised the possibility of a cap on California's mammoth prison population.
The ongoing prison crisis which is certain to cost the state billions at a time of painful budget cuts, provides the nation's most potent display of the dangers of a political system that has prioritized governing through crime for decades through the enactment of an endless stream of punitive crime legislation, and through building prisons that literally treat their inmates as if their criminality was the only feature of their existence worthy of government attention. The resulting prison system is beggaring the state's once worthy public universities and ambitious infrastructure projects while Californian's remain deeply insecure and vulnerable to crime politics.
The great jurist who went to Cal on a football scholarship, brings decades of insight about institutional reform litigation and specific success with reforming California prisons. Judge Henderson describes himself as a catalyst for change. By compelling the state to spend billions to bring its prison up to constitutional standards. But even with his great insight and courage as a jurist, Judge Henderson cannot compel California to stop governing through crime.