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Are California Prisons Punishing Inmates Based on Race?

Posted on Apr 15, 2013
AP/California Department of Corrections

By Christie Thompson, ProPublica

(Page 2)

The state denies that the lockdowns were race-based or unnecessarily long.

Race-based lockdowns may end up being used simply because it’s not always clear-cut who’s in a gang and who’s not. Inmates may side with members of their own race or ethnicity for protection during a fight, without being a member of a race-based gang like the Aryan Brotherhood.

UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich, who has testified against race-based lockdowns, said identifying the “enforcers” of such gangs would be a more effective deterrent to violence than locking down entire racial or ethnic groups.

Thornton, the prisons’ spokesperson, said the violence of a few inmates has a large impact on the entire prison. “A lot of inmates come to prison and they just want to do their time and go home,” she said.


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Identifying “enforcers” has challenges. A more targeted approach requires more trained personnel, which may be a tall order for California’s overburdened system. And another lawsuit brought on behalf of California prisoners claims that despite recent changes, prison officials still rely on questionable evidence, such as tattoos or certain books, to determine which inmates are gang members.

Beyond discrimination claims, the Prison Law Office lawsuit alleges lockdowns often last longer than necessary. Forty percent of security restrictions lasted less than a week, the analysis found, and more than 15 percent lasted more than a month. The complaint alleges some have lasted up to 10 years.

In a legal response filed last August, the state denied any lockdowns lasted longer than needed to secure the facility. Corrections spokeswoman Thornton said the department’s policy dictates restrictions “last no longer than necessary to restore institutional safety and security or to investigate the triggering event.”

“Prison administrators are not going to return a yard to regular programming until they know that people aren’t going to try and kill each other again,” Thornton said.

After a state appeals court upheld2002 state ruling against raced-based punishment at maximum-security Pelican Bay prison in Northern California, officers took a different tack. They began assessing the risk posed by individual inmates to determine restrictions. A prison spokesperson at the time told the Sacramento Bee that violence had decreased as result of the new policy.

The decision was reinforced by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held any use of racial classifications must be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” California prisons were ordered to stop segregating reception centers, where inmates stay for up to two months when they first arrive. In the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “When government officials are permitted to use race as a proxy for gang membership and violence ... society as a whole suffers.”

But Pelican Bay returned to race-based restrictions in 2009, according to court testimony from two prison officials. Both testified an unnamed deputy director ordered them “to discontinue this [new] system, as it was ‘against Department policy.’”

The reinstated policy was struck down again in January when a state appeals court in northern California upheld the trial court’s original ruling. There are more narrowly tailored means of controlling violence than to restrict entire ethnic groups,” the trial judge wrote.

“Prison staff doesn’t have to impose race-based lockdowns in order to ensure security,” said the Prison Law Office’s Evenson. The group is pushing for an injunction to halt the practice across the state.“They’ve gotten used to using it as a convenient shortcut, and prisoners continue to suffer just because of the color of their skin.”


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