Published 5:09 pm, Thursday, January 24, 2013
California‘s maximum-security prisons must treat inmates of all racial groups equally and may not – except in a short-term emergency – lock inmates down or deny them visitors, work assignments and other privileges based on their race, a state appeals court has ruled.
Wednesday’s decision by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco specifically addressed Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County. The warden had issued a series of orders restricting activities of all inmates in a particular racial or ethnic group, citing violence by racially defined prison gangs.
Superior Court Judge Robert Weir prohibited those orders 18 months ago, saying inmates can be locked up or denied freedom of movement for their behavior but not for their race. The appeals court upheld his decision in a ruling that applies to all prisons with similar policies.
The impact could be widespread. Attorney Rebekah Evenson of the nonprofit Prison Law Office said there have been more than 500 racially based lockdowns and similar restrictions imposed at men’s prisons in California in the last two years.
“They’re treating everyone as a gang member based on the color of their skin,” she said.
Prison officials insist their orders are based on gang affiliation, not race. Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said it adopted a policy in October declaring that restrictions on inmates “shall not target a specific racial or ethnic group unless there is a legitimate penological reason for doing so.”
The Prison Law Office has challenged the department’s implementation of its current policy in a separate federal lawsuit.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the court acknowledged that prisons have broad authority to take security measures against gang violence, including racial violence.
But Pelican Bay imposed “restrictions on all members of a racial group for extended and indefinite periods” without any attempt to determine whether they belonged to a gang or were responsible for the violence, said Justice Stuart Pollak in the 3-0 decision.
“Racial classifications threaten to stigmatize individuals by reason of their membership in a racial group and to incite racial hostility,” Pollak said, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
He said many of the Pelican Bay restrictions, like a ban on outside visitors for months or years at a time, “appear primarily punitive.”
The ruling includes an exception, which Weir had also approved, allowing the prison to separate inmates by race during brief emergencies, as long as no race is treated preferentially.
California prisons formerly segregated inmates by race during their first 60 days in a prison, but the U.S. Supreme Court declared that practice unconstitutional in 2005. Despite the ruling, inmate housing remains racially segregated at Pelican Bay and other maximum-security prisons, the appeals court said.
The court said Pelican Bay has also disregarded a 2004 ruling by another appeals court panel banning racially based lockdowns, the focus of Wednesday’s decision.
After a fight in August 2008 between members of Northern and Southern California Latino gangs, the warden barred or limited different racial groups’ access to visitors, work assignments, phone calls, prison canteens and exercise yards for nearly three years, until Weir’s July 2011 order.
There have been no reports of major racial clashes at the prison since then.
Read the ruling at www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A132816.PDF.