Shaping California's Prisons: How the Alternative Custody Program, Designed to Remedy the State's Eighth Amendment Violations in the Prison System, Encroaches on Equal Protection

By Whitehurst, Emilie A. | The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Shaping California's Prisons: How the Alternative Custody Program, Designed to Remedy the State's Eighth Amendment Violations in the Prison System, Encroaches on Equal Protection


Whitehurst, Emilie A., The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal


INTRODUCTION

The United States of America has an addiction. The federal, state, and local governments collectively consumed over seventy billion dollars for its satiation in 2008. l Comparatively, just three decades ago, in 1982, it demanded less than twenty billion in expenditures.2 By 2008, it was directly affecting one out of every one hundred adults residing in this nation.3 Incarceration. The United States is addicted to its correctional facilities, and it boasts the greatest incarceration rate in the world.4 Most of these inmates are placed in State prisons and jails,5 where the deathly combination of population overcrowding and a dire lack of resources cultivate an atmosphere that can inhumanely infringe on inmates' Eighth Amendment rights.6

The State correctional facilities in California foster particularly heinous environments. So heinous, in fact, that in 2006, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that California was in a state of public safety emergency.7 It is no wonder then, that this state - the frontrunner in correctional system spending8 - has captured negative judicial attention.9 On May 23, 20 1 1 , the Supreme Court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, held that California's state prisons were operating at such overcapacity as to directly inflict cruel and unusual punishment on California inmates, an Eighth Amendment violation.10 The Court therefore affirmed a lower court's order directing California to reduce its prison overcrowding by a specified percentage over the next two years. n The question plaguing the governor, legislators, wardens and civilians is how to bring the State into compliance with this order.12 Other states - including Virginia - that fear the imminence of similar judicial mandates of their own will be carefully observing California over the next two years, to see how America's guinea pig in prison reform will tackle its share of this national problem.13 However, these States would be ill-advised to adopt all of California's remedial plans in their current frameworks.

Unfortunately, at least one of California's current proposals to remedy the Eighth Amendment violation in its penitentiary system is being executed in a constitutionally unacceptable manner and therefore is not, in its present enactment, a sufficient remedy to a problem fraught with economic, political and societal concerns.14 The proposal, titled the Alternative Custody Program, clearly runs afoul of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection. This Note examines that initiative, and elucidates its constitutional flaws. Part I establishes the foundational basis with a discussion of inmate rights - as they are inherently limited in comparison to the free population's - and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as they apply to State prisons. The section then discusses the conditions in California State prisons, as they have become the nation's testing ground for prison reform, and focuses on how one particular condition - prison overcrowding - was judicially deemed an Eighth Amendment violation by the California federal courts in Coleman v. Wilson,15 Plata v. Schwarzenegger,16 Coleman v. Schwarzenegger,11 and by the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata.18 Part II conducts an overview of California's response to the overcrowding problem, and its much touted initiative, Public Safety Realignment of 201 1 ("Realignment"). One of California's current proposals, which falls under the umbrella of Realignment, is the Alternative Custody Program.19 The program is intended to remedy the Eighth Amendment violation, but it is constitutionally problematic in its own right. Indeed, it treads on the Fourteenth Amendment. Part III unfurls the program's constitutional shortcomings, specifically in the context of equal protection, and Part IV offers a recommendation for bringing the Alternative Custody Program into conformity with the Constitution.

I. PROTECTION OF INMATE RIGHTS

Prisoners are not afforded all of the constitutional rights that they enjoyed prior to incarceration. …

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