Group Sues Calif. Over Race-Based Prison Lockdowns
SACRAMENTO (AP) — California’s use of race as a basis for locking prisoners in their cells after fights amounts to illegal discrimination and should be banned, attorneys representing inmates said in a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The policy unfairly punishes innocent inmates simply because they have the same color skin as those involved in the violence, the nonprofit Prison Law Office said in its suit, filed in federal court in Sacramento.
Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said lockdowns are sometimes necessary to protect safety and security. It is not the department’s policy to base lockdowns and other restrictions solely on race or ethnicity, she said.
However, a proposed revision to the department’s lockdown policy says inmates often organize themselves based on race or geographical area. The policy acknowledges that some uninvolved inmates may be affected, but it is the department’s goal to get them back to a normal routine as soon as possible.
Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, said the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar argument in 2005 when it told the state to end its policy of housing inmates based on their race. The high court and other states have found that such race-based policies encourage violence by splitting inmates along racial lines, Evenson said.
There were about 350 complete or partial race-based lockdowns annually in the California’s 30 male prisons in recent years, according to the lawsuit.
The lockdowns averaged two months in which inmates were generally denied visitors, exercise and educational programs. Four prisons imposed lockdowns lasting longer than a year, and eight had lockdowns exceeding 200 days.
The class-action lawsuit was amended into a 2008 suit originally filed by an individual inmate who was seeking monetary damages for being confined to his cell.
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