Lawsuit tests racial policy at California prisons

By From page A1 | July 24, 2014

SACRAMENTO — A federal judge said Wednesday that he will consider whether California’s policy of locking up prisoners by race violates the constitutional rights of the roughly 125,000 male inmates within the state prison system.

U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley of Sacramento granted class-action status in a lawsuit challenging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s policy of locking all inmates of a particular race in their cells after a fight involving any member of that racial group.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2008 by one inmate, Robert Mitchell, after he and all other black inmates at High Desert State Prison in Susanville were locked in their cells following a fight. The legal challenge will now apply to all male inmates.

Gangs in California prisons typically are based on race, and fights often involve members of one race against one another. State law says the department can target specific racial and ethnic groups only when necessary to prevent further violence, and the response must be “narrowly tailored.”

The U.S. Justice Department last year intervened in the case, saying the practice violates the equal-protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment. Attorneys say no other state has a similar policy.

The department puts each inmate into one of four racial groupings: Black, White, Hispanic and “Other,” according to the ruling.

A second inmate testified as part of the case that because he is classified as Hispanic “Other,” he has been locked in his cell when the department restricts the movements of all “Hispanics” and has also been locked down when the department restricts those whose ethnicity is “Other.”

Nunley scolded the department for denying in its legal filings that it has a statewide policy, saying it is clear from the evidence that a written policy has existed at least since 2007 and was renewed in 2012.

“Both of these policies utilize race in lockdown situations,” he wrote in the 15-page ruling. “As such, the Court finds any assertion denying the existence of the CDCR’s policy to be insincere at the very least … ”

Corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department is reviewing the ruling.

The policy is similar to another California practice that the U.S. Supreme Court found to be discriminatory a decade ago: segregating inmates by race in their cells and sleeping areas to prevent gang violence.

“This is an important step forward toward vindicating the rights of all prisoners to be treated fairly regardless of race,” said Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the nonprofit Prison Law Office that filed the new challenge.


The Associated Press

The Associated Press


Discussion | 4 comments

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  • Shanna WieserJuly 23, 2014 - 3:04 pm

    I am sorry is this a resort?? Did they throw away their rights when they CHOSE to commit a crime? Straighten your butt up and earn back rights with good behavior. But since they have won their case let them loose to kill each other the surviving prisoner gets life for murder. Use the savings on Special education.

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  • LisaJuly 23, 2014 - 7:06 pm

    Choose your battles. You chose to get locked up, now you live by the laws in the 'grey bar hotel'. In this area, it's more about race than anything else (well, maybe greed, dominance, narcissism). Staff & prisoner safety is important. Prisoner rights, yes. I just don't see my corrections officer's put at risk just because ya'll can't get along INSIDE or OUT.

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  • 2realJuly 24, 2014 - 6:08 am

    Milking the system, its what their good at.

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  • boomJuly 24, 2014 - 11:28 am

    Well, having actually been in prison in this state before, the racial policy is definitely in full effect. Talking to some older lifer inmates, they told me stories of how in the late 70's and 80's there were no racial boundaries and guidelines like there are today, that blacks, whites and mexicans all generally got along and that the inmates' main enemy was "the man" aka the Guards. I heard many stories about guards being stabbed and killed at DVI and inmates taking over pods in the prison when they rioted. This all started to change in the 80's when the department of corrections started making housing policies based on race. So, in reality, the state made the prisons racially segregated because if the inmates weren't fighting each other over what color their skin is, they would soon figure out that the real enemy were the guards in the green suits who are keeping them behind locked doors. Its a crap policy, but with race so ingrained into the prisoners head as the only way to segregate themselves into groups with power, not sure there is an answer to this problem. Having been in race riots where people have been stabbed and maimed, I think its pretty ambitious to think inmates are going to go back to the way it was before, even if you implemented a policy reversing segregation. My race was literally the first question they would always ask me when I stepped off the prison bus into a new prison, right before they put me into a holding tank that had only my race in it. That place isn't helping anybody, I'm lucky to have gotten out scar free with my mind halfway intact.

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