California Inmates Win Class-Action Status over Race-Based Treatment

Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2014

A federal judge in Sacramento on Wednesday awarded class-action status to California prison inmates who allege that their rights are violated by what they say are widespread instances of race-based punishment.

Prison officials acknowledge they respond to outbreaks of violence by ordering sanctions, including sweeping lockdowns, that can last for months. They say every inmate is assigned a race or ethnic code: black, Hispanic, white or other, and at some prisons, inmates live in cells where their race is denoted by color-coded signs.

But officials deny in court filings that lockdowns are punishment that is decided by race. They contend that inmates align themselves with gangs based on race and ethnic group, and that prison officials seek to control violence among those gangs.

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There was no immediate comment by the corrections department, but in past statements, agency officials have called management of gang-related violence “complex and challenging.” Because the litigation is now a class action, losing the case would force California to change its prison gang control strategies statewide.

“If wardens did not have the discretion to lock down racial groups after such a race-based incident, they would either have to lock down all inmates in the affected area, or risk further violence by inmates associated with the involved inmates,” associate prisons director Kelly Harrington testified last year.

Nevertheless, a corrections official said Wednesday the lockdown policy was being revised, the second time in two years. “We want to be as race-neutral as possible,” said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

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California’s controversial race-based prison practices are unique among states. The U.S. Justice Department intervened in the case in October, telling the court California’s racial lockdowns were inconsistent with federal practices, ineffective, and based on “generalized fears of racial violence.”

After a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court battle over the state’s long-standing practice of segregating inmates upon arrival, California agreed to end the practice. Instead, inmates now are asked whether they will accept housing with those of other races.

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