All of the black inmates in one of the four cellblocks at the state prison in Lancaster have been denied visitors for the last month, raising concerns about discrimination and civil rights violations as authorities investigate a bloody attack on three prison guards.
Prison officials said visitation rights for more than 300 black inmates were halted Aug. 12 after the serious beating of three guards, including one who was stabbed in the head.
Lt. Ron Nipper, a prison spokesman, said only black inmates in the one cellblock were being kept from having visitors and from mingling with some of the other prison population because the suspects in the attack were believed to be black. As in many circumstances related to keeping order in prisons, the ongoing investigation requires isolating the inmates for the time being, Nipper said.
But some civil rights advocates and legal experts said that although courts often give prisons much leeway in dealing with inmates, applying restrictions based on race raises concerns about constitutional rights.
“In some ways, it’s kind of racial profiling at its worst,” said Kevin Wright, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “And in terms of prison management, generally the idea is to treat people fairly and justly. When you start treating them more unfairly, they get more difficult to manage.”
Miriam Gohara, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the practice “totally unconstitutional.”
Nipper said two black prisoners may face charges of attempted murder in connection with the August attack. Authorities are searching for an undisclosed number of other black suspects, and allowing the inmates more freedom would hamper the investigation, he said.
“The liabilities are too great until we get through the investigations,” he said. “And we have very good information that they’re trying to kill us.”
Russ Heimerich, a California Department of Corrections spokesman, said that such race-based restrictions are not uncommon in state prisons. A recording on the department’s visitor information line Thursday indicated that numerous prisons were restricting visiting privileges on the basis of race or gang affiliation.
Heimerich said many prisoners fraternize only with members of their own race, often forming race-based gangs. As a result, the distinction between a restriction aimed at a particular gang--as opposed to one aimed at a particular race--can be hazy, he said.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “But that’s the way prison lines are drawn.”
Joey R. Weedon, a spokesman for the American Correctional Assn., a trade group representing corrections employees, said the Lancaster prison officials’ policy could be justified if they were unable to define the pool of potential suspects more specifically.
“They have to institute policies to control the population so they can protect their staff,” Weedon said.
Heimerich said the safety of prison guards is paramount. “We have some people very seriously hurt, so I have no sympathy for any yard locked down as a result of it,” he said.
State corrections officials gave the following account of the events that resulted in the current conditions at Lancaster prison.
Early Aug. 12, an inmate walking in a group toward a dining hall stepped out of the line and began punching Corrections Officer Thomas Case in the face.
When Officer Tommy Vasquez tried to help Case, a second inmate stabbed Vasquez in the head twice with a 5 1/2-inch blade. A third officer, Sgt. Michael Ayala, suffered a fractured jaw when hit from behind by an unknown inmate.
Other guards were able to quell the disturbance by using pepper spray on the inmates.
Case has returned to work. The other two officers are still recovering from their injuries. The motive for the attack remains undetermined.
Authorities said that like many state prisons, the Lancaster facility, located in the Mojave Desert about 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, is severely crowded. It was built in 1993 for 2,200 inmates but now has about 4,000. The inmate population is 39% black, 28% Latino and 25% white, with 6% of inmates of other ethnic backgrounds.
Violence is nothing new for the facility. A fight in 2000 between more than 120 white and Latino prisoners left 10 injured. In 1999, a guard was shot during a brawl between whites and Latinos.
Last December, more than 300 inmates clashed in the largest riot at the prison. The melee, in which groups of Latinos, whites and blacks fought each other, resulted in injuries to 20 prisoners.
Since the Aug. 12 incident, officials have also restricted the movements of all maximum-security inmates--the vast majority of the prison’s population--forbidding phone calls and work details.
A prison-wide search has produced nearly 50 weapons, Nipper said.
Still, for Watts resident Helen Jackson, whose 28-year-old son, Damond, is serving time for assault, the last month has been extremely frustrating.
“Why not just restrict the people who were involved?” she said. “Why all the blacks?”