California’s Race-Based Prison Segregation Policy Being Challenged In Court

April 17, 2013  |  

If two people have received the same prison sentence, they should, you’d think, receive the same treatment. Not so in various California prisons, according to the The Huffington Post, where some are getting more privileges or punishments than others. And even more outrageous, 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, reports HuffPo.

According to the site, at least five California state prisons have a color-coding system.

Prison officials defend the practice, claiming it to be  necessary in a system plagued by race-based gang violence present in the state’s prison system. They point to such recent incident as when 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.

“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,” the article says. “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.”

But others are saying it is discriminatory and have filed a federal class-action lawsuit. In response to the lawsuit, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wrote the labels “provide visual cues that allow prison officials to prevent race-based victimization, reduce race-based violence, and prevent thefts and assaults.”

The class-action lawsuit was actually filed in 2011 by the Prison Law Office says race-based restrictions are an ineffective and unjust way of keeping prisoners safe. “I haven’t seen anything like it since the days of segregation, when you had colored drinking fountains,” Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the nonprofit Prison Law Office, told HuffPo. According to the ACLU National Prison Project, California is the only state known to use race-based lockdowns.

The practice, which is not an official policy, has been knocked down several time. In fact, state and federal courts have ruled against it.

Prisoner advocates say the reason prisons have started using the practice is due in part to 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,” writes HuffPo. While the state prison’s population has recently dropped, it’s still at nearly 150 percent its designed capacity.

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