A federal judge in Sacramento on Wednesday awarded class-action status to California prison inmates who allege that their rights are violated by what they say are widespread instances of race-based punishment.
Prison officials acknowledge they respond to outbreaks of violence by ordering sanctions, including sweeping lockdowns, that can last for months. They say every inmate is assigned a race or ethnic code: black, Hispanic, white or other, and at some prisons, inmates live in cells where their race is denoted by color-coded signs.
But officials deny in court filings that lockdowns are punishment that is decided by race. They contend that inmates align themselves with gangs based on race and ethnic group, and that prison officials seek to control violence among those gangs.
U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley's ruling Wednesday says it is "undisputed" that California has statewide lockdown policies that utilize race, and found "any assertion denying the existence of the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's] policy to be insincere at the very least."
There was no immediate comment by the corrections department, but in past statements, agency officials have called management of gang-related violence "complex and challenging." Because the litigation is now a class action, losing the case would force California to change its prison gang control strategies statewide.
"If wardens did not have the discretion to lock down racial groups after such a race-based incident, they would either have to lock down all inmates in the affected area, or risk further violence by inmates associated with the involved inmates," associate prisons director Kelly Harrington testified last year.
Nevertheless, a corrections official said Wednesday the lockdown policy was being revised, the second time in two years. "We want to be as race-neutral as possible," said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
The case stems from a 2008 court complaint filed by inmate Robert Mitchell, who protested that because he is African American he was repeatedly subjected to lockdowns at High Desert State Prison that confined him to his cell. Mitchell alleged prison officials said it was state policy that "when there is an incident involving any race, all inmates of that race are locked up."
Other plaintiffs have since joined the litigation, and are now represented by the Prison Law Office and the Bingham McCutcheon law firm.
Nunley denied California's motion to dismiss the case in February. The class he certified Wednesday consists of about 125,000 male inmates in the California prison system.
California's controversial race-based prison practices are unique among states. The U.S. Justice Department intervened in the case in October, telling the court California's racial lockdowns were inconsistent with federal practices, ineffective, and based on "generalized fears of racial violence."
After a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court battle over the state's long-standing practice of segregating inmates upon arrival, California agreed to end the practice. Instead, inmates now are asked whether they will accept housing with those of other races.
In 2012, the state rewrote its lockdown policies, while a California appeals court ordered a halt to the race-based policies at one prison, maximum-security Pelican Bay, after a three-year lockdown triggered by a riot between northern and southern Mexican gangs. Inmates at Pelican Bay were being denied family visits, issued housing and work assignments and assigned yard times — all based on their race.
Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office contends that the changes have been on paper alone, that inmates remain segregated even when they indicate they will accept mixed-race housing, and that lockdowns are still applied by race.
"There is a deep-seated mentality that has to change. Our case challenges the most harsh implications of that culture," she said. "But unless there is a fundamental culture shift, these ugly practices are going to continue."