Are California Prisons Punishing Inmates Based On Race?

English: Concertina razor wire at a prison
Concertina razor wire at a prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contributed By:

Christie Thompson

In several men’s prisons across California, colored signs hang above cell doors: blue for black inmates, white for white, red, green or pink for Hispanic, yellow for everyone else.

Though it’s not an official policy, at least five California state prisons have a color-coding system.

On any given day, the color of a sign could mean the difference between an inmate exercising in the prison yard or being confined to their cell. When prisoners attack guards or other inmates, California allows its corrections officers to restrict all prisoners of that same race or ethnicity to prevent further violence.

Prison officials have said such moves can be necessary in a system plagued by some of the worst race-based gang violence in the country. Just last week, at least four inmates were taken to the hospital after a fight broke out between over 60 black and Hispanic inmates in a Los Angeles jail.

The labels “provide visual cues that allow prison officials to prevent race-based victimization, reduce race-based violence, and prevent thefts and assaults,” wrote the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in response to a lawsuit.

But legal advocates say such practices are deeply problematic. “I haven’t seen anything like it since the days of segregation, when you had colored drinking fountains,” said Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the nonprofit Prison Law Office.

A federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2011 by the Prison Law Office says race-based restrictions are an ineffective and unjust way of keeping prisoners safe. “Rather than targeting actual gang members, they assume every person is a gang member based on the color of their skin,” said Evenson, one of the lead lawyers in the case. According to the ACLU National Prison Project, California is the only state known to use race-based lockdowns.

State and federal courts have ruled against the practice multiple times. One state court judge concluded in 2002 that “managing inmates on the basis of ethnicity” was counterproductive, and instead increased hostilities among prisoners.

A recent review of corrections department reports, done for the Prison Law Office, suggests it’s still common practice. The analysis found that nearly half the 1,445 security-based lockdowns between January 2010 and November 2012 affected specific racial or ethnic groups. Inmates labeled as Hispanic were the most common targets, while inmates identified as “other,” (anyone not labeled black, white or Hispanic) were the least likely to be restricted.

Rejecting an inmate’s complaint in 2010, one prison’s inmate appeals reviewer noted that the department’s policy is that when there is an incident involving any race, all inmates of that race are locked up.” Another review cited the same policy.

California’s corrections department spokesperson Terry Thornton said that’s not department policy. Thornton said policy dictates that restrictions will not “target a specific racial or ethnic group unless there is a legitimate penological interest in doing so.”

“A legitimate penological interest is safety, security,” Thornton said. “It’s protecting people’s lives.”

Prisoner advocates say race-based lockdowns may be yet another consequence of California’s crowding crisis. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a federal court ruling that crowding in the state’s prisons was severe enough to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and required the state to cut its prison population.

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