Show, Don’t Tell

Do photographs of California’s overcrowded prisons belong in a Supreme Court decision about those prisons?

By Dahlia Lithwick

Prison. Click image to expand.Photos from California’s overcrowded prison system

California’s prisons are so overcrowded, the Supreme Court ruled today, that they are a violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Writing for the majority in Brown v. Plata, Justice Anthony Kennedy spent 48 pages carefully explaining why the state must release or relocate some 32,000 inmates over the next two years. Then, to drive home his argument, Kennedy attached three grainy black-and-white photographs to the opinion. Whether those photos will change anyone’s mind about the morality of prison overcrowding is open to debate. Whether they should may be the more important, and more interesting, question.

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