Back in 2008, on the opening day of a trial that would lead to a crisis the state of California is finally being forced to confront, an attorney representing inmates began showing the court a video depicting a prison gymnasium filled wall-to-wall with triple-decked bunk beds.
An attorney representing the state objected, calling the video "hearsay evidence" of prison overcrowding.
The plaintiffs' attorney responded that the video had been taken from the website of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
At that, federal District Judge Lawrence Karlton, incredulous that the source of such damning evidence was the state itself, allowed the showing of the video to proceed.
State officials were in denial then that the federal courts would intervene to relieve overcrowding in California prisons, and they remained largely in denial for nearly five more years — until Aug. 2, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block an order that the state reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of prison capacity by the end of the year.
The state had been in denial throughout that 2008 trial, when it didn't bother to contest the allegation that California prisons were seriously overcrowded.
It sought to argue only that it could adequately deliver medical and mental health care despite those conditions.
It remained in denial after the special three-judge panel found that overcrowding was the principal cause of inadequate health care and initially ordered the population reduction.
Back then, state officials were smugly confident the U.S. Supreme Court would never let such an order stand.
After all, Congress, concerned about a proliferation of lawsuits, had passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1996. It says judges must find "the least intrusive means necessary" to correct any violation of rights.
With that law on the books, California officials believed this conservative U.S. Supreme Court would tell the panel of judges in California that their order was too intrusive.
They were wrong.
In 2011, on a 5-4 vote, the high court upheld the order. In an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court held that the three-judge panel "made the most precise determination it could in light of the record before it." Along the way, some officials tried at least some halfhearted steps to address the overcrowding. In his final months in office, for instance, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill creating a new medical parole program, but the law was so tightly crafted that only inmates who are essentially in a vegetative state qualify for consideration.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in by far the boldest and most effective response, managed in 2011 to shepherd in a public safety realignment plan that shifted responsibility for housing tens of thousands of low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.
That accomplished, he joined in the denial.
In January, he proclaimed California's prison crisis had ended, rescinded a prison emergency order that had been in effect since 2006 and made plans to start bringing back inmates now housed in out-of-state prisons. He asked the court to vacate its order.
The federal judges were not amused. They accused Brown of engaging in "openly contumacious conduct." Their order still stands. The judges, who had shown a considerable amount, ran out of patience.
Based on testimony from leading criminologists and evidence from other states, the judges continue to believe that there is low-hanging fruit that California officials are rejecting as means to comply. Among them are expansion of good-time credits, extension of community-based rehabilitation programs and sentencing reform.