By Lucile Malandain

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2011 (AFP) – The U.S. Supreme Court ordered California Monday to free thousands of prison inmates, saying chronic overcrowding violated inmates’ rights – but one judge warned the ruling was “outrageous.”

In a narrow 5-4 majority ruling upholding a lower court decision, the top U.S. court said the release is the only way to address the constitutional violation of cruel and unusual punishment.

“This case arises from serious constitutional violations in California’s prison system. The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a majority opinion.
Cash-strapped California has for some years had a problem with prison overcrowding: the western US state has some 148,000 inmates housed in 33 jails designed for some 80,000 people, according to its own figures.
In a sign of tensions in Calilfornia’s jails, another riot was reported Monday, the second in only a few days: four inmates were injured when nearly 200 prisoners rioted Sunday at San Quentin jail, north of San Francisco.
There was no immediate reaction to the ruling from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Kennedy said that although the state has reduced the population by at least 9,000 during the appeal process, the decision “means a further reduction of 37,000 persons could be required.”

“The state may employ measures, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators to community-based programs, that will mitigate the order’s impact. The population reduction potentially required is nevertheless of unprecedented sweep and extent.”

The order “leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials,” the ruling read.

“But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means… the state will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.”

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the ruling could mean the release of 46,000 criminals.

“One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result,” he added.

He added that “terrible things (were) sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.”

Scalia wrote that the vast majority of inmates who may be affected “do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation.

“Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym,” he said.

In August 2009, three federal judges ordered 40,000 prisoners released within two years. Late last year California appealed to the Supreme Court to annul the ruling, warning that the freed prisoners could pose a risk to public safety.

The ruling comes after at least two inmates were stabbed Friday when some 150 prisoners rioted at a maximum security prison in the state capital Sacramento. Guards used pepper spray and fired a live round to regain control.

On Sunday evening, a riot broke out in the dining hall at San Quentin prison, leaving inmates injured with slash and stab wounds according to prison spokesman Sam Robinson cited by the San Francisco Examiner and other media .