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Alumni win relief for Calif. prisoners

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Featured


The United States Supreme Court in May ordered the California state prison system to reduce its population by 30,000 prisoners in a strong case of judicial intervention in the name of constitutional standards. Michael Bien and Jane Kahn, a married couple who are both members of the Brandeis class of 1977, dedicated more than two decades to improving the overcrowding of the California prisons and successfully persuaded the court to intercede.

Bien and Kahn presented the annual Joshua A. Guberman Lecture, “Representing Prisoners with Serious Mental Illness Trapped in a Nightmare: The California Prison Overcrowding Case,” Monday. They also received the Brandeis Alumni Activist Award for their continued pursuit.

Aside from the issue of prisoner rights, the fact of the Supreme Court’s intervention within the case remains controversial due to whether the Supreme Court took a proper role in a state matter.

Kahn advocated the Supreme Court’s expanded role by saying that “the legislative and executive branches have washed their hands of this issue and forced the judicial branch to act.”

The California state prison system has long been known for its inhumane treatment of prisoners. In 1995, the federal courts found the state prison system to have violated the Eighth and 14th amendments to the Constitution and instituted a remedial process under the supervision of a special master. Yet conditions remained so poor that in 2006 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency due to prison overcrowding.

As a direct consequence, the issue of mental illness already prevalent among inmates only worsened. The suicide rate in the prisons became higher than the national average, while one in four inmates required mental health care. In addition, hundreds of patients were placed on wait-lists to receive mental health care.

Kahn, a frequent visitor to the prisons where she met with various inmates, recalled watching a group therapy session, in which prisoners were kept within individual cages gathered in a circle. Even those prisoners deemed suicidal were denied proper care and placed in dark cells with merely a blanket for warmth. While observing an individual therapy session in which the prisoner was brought into the room handcuffed wearing nothing but a blanket, Kahn recalls the therapist asking the prisoner why he constantly averted his eyes. In response, the prisoner replied, “I can’t look because I’m so embarrassed sitting here naked.” After the prisoner left the room, nothing was said. An exacerbated Kahn declared during the lecture, “Sometimes we cannot bear the sluggish pace … we must scream at the top of our lungs on behalf of the prisoners.” And she has.

After the verdict of the Supreme Court was secured, Bien and Kahn admitted to contouring their argument based upon Justice Anthony Kennedy, the most ideologically to the center of the panel. Kennedy declared for the majority: “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.” In addition to drafting their argument to Kennedy, Bien and Kahn utilized photographs depicting the inhumane and desolate conditions of the prisons. Bien explained, “Photos moved people in a different way, they show a real segment of our society that we should do something about.” Kennedy included some of the photographs in the Court record.

Now that the decision by the Supreme Court has been handed down, the question emerges: What will become of the inmates no longer detained? In response to inquiries regarding the cutback of population within the prisons, Bien and Kahn explained no inmates will be released prior to their sentence. Rather, those inmates who have committed technical parole violations or minor felonies will no longer be returned to prison. In consequence, Bien admits, “the problem may simply be shifted to county jails.” But he asserts the money is already present; it is merely a matter of transferring funds from the state to the communities.

Despite the controversial nature of the case and the remaining questions concerning the future implications and precedents set by the Supreme Court’s decision, Bien and Khan have nevertheless succeeded in a task some would deem impossible. They have shed light on the dark issue of neglect of mental illness within prison systems. Bien, when asked whether he ever foresaw bearing such an impact upon society, replied “No. However, I am very fortunate in doing work that is meaningful; it wasn’t my dream, but my dream was hoping I could get something valuable out of work.”