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Prison Bars and Color Lines

The Supreme Court made the right decision Wednesday in all but overturning California’s policy of housing new prison inmates in cells based on their race. Clearly, the state cannot classify people solely on that basis in the year 2005, and it would be preposterous for state prison officials to continue arguing that there is a compelling reason to do so.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor relied on the court’s half- century-old ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education to strike down the notion that segregation by race in separate-but-equal facilities is constitutionally acceptable.

Granted, prisons are not schools, and inmates have been known to kill each other while housed together. Other decisions have established that inmates don’t have the same rights as others, and that in extreme cases they can be separated by race to avoid riots.

But as a routine matter, the state cannot rely on such a primitive means of classifying people, even temporarily, in seeking peaceful prisons. Indeed, the use of that criterion alone may be unfairly endangering as many inmates as it protects. Consider the case of a nonviolent convict stuck in a cell with a dangerous gang member simply because they share the same ethnicity.

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The problem stems from the fact that most inmates arrive at prison reception centers accompanied by little more than a one-page rap sheet listing the crime for which they were convicted. Critical information, such as an inmate’s gang affiliation, past criminal record and other factors that would help prison officials make appropriate interim housing decisions, isn’t given.

With little else to go on, whites are often stuck in the white pen, blacks in the black pen, and let the chips fall where they may.

We are under no illusion that the system can be changed overnight. The state of Texas, for instance, is still struggling to comply with a 1980 federal court decree ordering it to stop segregating inmates by skin color alone.

However, rather than clinging to some dim hope that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- asked by the Supreme Court to reevaluate the state’s segregation policy -- will find it constitutionally sustainable, legislators should upgrade prison computer systems used for processing inmates. The governor’s new prison reorganization plan acknowledges the underlying problem -- antiquated and ineffective “information technology” -- but doesn’t promise to solve it until July 2010.

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That’s not soon enough when lives are at stake. The state needs a way to separate its inmates that doesn’t endanger them or prison guards -- not to mention the Constitution.


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