The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cool Thesis of the Week: An Evaluation of Court-Ordered Prison Reform

Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all.

Lindsay Shields '12 thinks prisoner's rights are important too.

It’s easy to think of prisoners as on the receiving end of justice. However, Lindsay Shields ’12, of Denver, Colorado, is interested in justice for prisoners.

Many prisons suffer from overcrowding, and Lindsay’s thesis, which she is working on with President Colin Diver, aims to “find out how conditions of confinement in prisons can best be addressed.” Lindsay will examine the trend of federal courts in America taking the lead in ordering reforms to prisons and its Constitutional implications, and then “ask more generally whether or not the courts should be the main agents of prison reform as they are now.”

Lindsay will use a case study approach, focusing on the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Plata. The case, decided last year, upheld the right of federal courts to mandate prison policy. Many prison conditions are very poor, and this is problematic, Lindsay says, because “prisoner issues are often underrepresented and face the obstacle of being ‘out of sight, our of mind.’” This includes the conditions of the California prison medical health care system, which was ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. It was therefore put into “receivership,” in which the court appoints a receiver to oversee the court-ordered change, and which is “the most invasive tool a court has for securing compliance to an order.”

Medical care issues, however, were not the only problem with California courts. “At its peak,” Lindsay says, “California’s prisons were at 202 percent of prison design capacity,” with two prisoners on average occupying the space intended for one. At its peak,” Lindsay says, “California’s prisons were at 202 percent of prison design capacity,” with two prisoners on average occupying the space intended for one. At the time of the court order that led to the case, Lindsay says, California’s system was at 188 percent of design capacity, and “the federal court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to be reduced to 137.5% of prison design capacity. That’s from 150,000 inmates to 110,000 inmates.”

The case, says Lindsay, made headlines by virtue of its being largely misinterpreted by the popular press. The fact that prison populations were being reduced was understood to mean that prisoners would be released. However, says Lindsay, “this obviously would not happen and didn’t happen.” Instead, “Governor [Jerry] Brown implemented a strategy called ‘realignment’ where certain classes of prisoners (nonviolent, non-serious, non sex offenders) that would have originally gone to prison are going to county jails instead.”

However, the fact that the federal courts were involving themselves brought up constitutional issues. Many were worried that it violated the principle of separation of powers, central to American government, which would keep the role of courts as being only to interpret the law, and not to make it, as some believed they were doing in this case. It also raised concerns that the federal government was encroaching too much on what should be the state’s responsibility. However, “there is also the risk that if [the courts] do not interfere the violations of prisoners’ constitutional right might not be remedied.” Furthermore, she says, “the courts most likely are not the most capable branch of remedying the violations either, but legislatures and executives are reluctant to devote much time to a politically weak constituency,” referring to prisoners.

While Lindsay is still unsure about what she thinks is the optimal way to address prison reform issues, one thing is for sure: They are important. “There are a lot of social justice issues today that deserve everyone’s time and attention, but I want people to realize that our prisons, both their use/the problem of mass incarceration and their conditions is a big social justice issue today too.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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