SACRAMENTO (AP) — California is violating the federal Constitution when it punishes prison inmates after a riot based on their race, the U.S. Department of Justice said Friday.
Gangs in California prisons typically are based on race, and riots often pit members of one race against one another or involve inmates of only one race.
After the riots, officers often lock inmates in their cells based on which races were involved to prevent further violence — whether or not those inmates were involved.
The Justice Department said in a court filing that the practice violates the 14th Amendment, which requires equal protection under the law. The opinion is not binding, but is part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit in federal court in Sacramento.
The policy "is not based on any individual analysis of prisoner behavior, but rather on generalized fears of racial violence. Indeed, the policy affects hundreds of prisoners throughout the (prison) system who the state acknowledges have absolutely no gang ties or history of violence," according to the filing signed by the chiefs of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
The state could adopt race-neutral alternatives, the Justice Department said, including locking up specific inmates who it suspects were involved in the fight, or locking down entire housing units where the riot occurred.
It could also do a better job of gathering information in advance on which inmates are involved in gangs or are likely to engage in race-based violence and keep them separated.
Corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the state's policy is not to base lockdowns "solely on the inmate's race or ethnicity." State law says the department "shall not target a specific racial or ethnic group unless it is necessary and narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest."
The U.S. Justice Department contends that the policy is too broadly written to pass constitutional muster.
The lawsuit was filed in 2008 by Robert Mitchell after he was locked in his cell following a fight at High Desert State Prison in Susanville. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation imposes more than 600 lockdowns in a typical year, at least 200 of which are based on the race of the inmates, said Rebekah Evenson, whose nonprofit Prison Law Office represents Mitchell and other inmates.
No other state has a similar policy she said.
"They lock down people who were not involved in the incident, not involved in the gang and just happen to have the same color skin," she said.
The policy is similar to another California practice that the U.S. Supreme Court found to be discriminatory nearly a decade ago, the practice of segregating inmates by race in their cells and sleeping areas to prevent gang violence.