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Are California Prisons Punishing Inmates Based on Race?

State officials say they need to protect inmates from race-based gang violence. But a lawsuit says frequent lockdowns smack of segregation.

Inmates at Chino State Prison in California exercise in the yard. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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.

Prison officials have blamed crowding for contributing to “an increase in riots and disturbances.” And the more inmates there are, the more likely it is that prison officials will respond to violence with broad-brush security measures, legal experts said.

The state prison’s population has dropped recently, though it’s still at nearly 150 percent its designed capacity.

The state’s corrections officer union sided with plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, claiming overcrowding compromised their ability to effectively run a prison. "Overcrowding in California’s prisons substantially increases the use of lockdowns," the organization wrote in a legal brief.

Certain security situations might require inmates to be kept from the prison yard, prohibited from receiving visitors, or blocked from classes and drug rehabilitation meetings — restrictions the department refers to as “modified programming." Analysis of corrections department reports found that nearly all of security lockdowns last year restricted outdoor exercise.

Hanif Abdullah is one of the inmates suing the state. Currently at California State Prison, Solano, Abdullah asserts he was placed on “modified programming” multiple times solely because he is black. A devout Muslim, he says he was kept from attending religious services as well as receiving adequate health care.

Another prisoner in the suit, Robert Mitchell, claims he was locked down “nearly continuously” for a year and a half at High Desert State Prison, because the sign outside his cell marked him as black. Mitchell testified that he suffered "muscular atrophy … and severe pain" when he was kept from exercising a leg injury.

The state denies that the lockdowns were race-based or unnecessarily long.

Race-based lockdowns may end up being used simply because it’s not always clear-cut who’s in a gang and who’s not. Inmates may side with members of their own race or ethnicity for protection during a fight, without being a member of a race-based gang like the Aryan Brotherhood.

UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich, who has testified against race-based lockdowns, said identifying the "enforcers" of such gangs would be a more effective deterrent to violence than locking down entire racial or ethnic groups.

Thornton, the prisons’ spokesperson, said the violence of a few inmates has a large impact on the entire prison. "A lot of inmates come to prison and they just want to do their time and go home," she said.

Identifying “enforcers” has challenges. A more targeted approach requires more trained personnel, which may be a tall order for California’s overburdened system. And another lawsuit brought on behalf of California prisoners claims that despite recent changes, prison officials still rely on questionable evidence, such as tattoos or certain books, to determine which inmates are gang members.

Beyond discrimination claims, the Prison Law Office lawsuit alleges lockdowns often last longer than necessary. Forty percent of security restrictions lasted less than a week, the analysis found, and more than 15 percent lasted more than a month. The complaint alleges some have lasted up to 10 years.

In a legal response filed last August, the state denied any lockdowns lasted longer than needed to secure the facility. Corrections spokeswoman Thornton said the department’s policy dictates restrictions “last no longer than necessary to restore institutional safety and security or to investigate the triggering event.”

“Prison administrators are not going to return a yard to regular programming until they know that people aren't going to try and kill each other again,” Thornton said.

After a state appeals court upheld2002 state ruling against raced-based punishment at maximum-security Pelican Bay prison in Northern California, officers took a different tack. They began assessing the risk posed by individual inmates to determine restrictions. A prison spokesperson at the time told the Sacramento Bee that violence had decreased as result of the new policy.

The decision was reinforced by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held any use of racial classifications must be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.” California prisons were ordered to stop segregating reception centers, where inmates stay for up to two months when they first arrive. In the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “When government officials are permitted to use race as a proxy for gang membership and violence ... society as a whole suffers.”

But Pelican Bay returned to race-based restrictions in 2009, according to court testimony from two prison officials. Both testified an unnamed deputy director ordered them “to discontinue this [new] system, as it was ‘against Department policy.’”

The reinstated policy was struck down again in January when a state appeals court in northern California upheld the trial court’s original ruling. There are more narrowly tailored means of controlling violence than to restrict entire ethnic groups,” the trial judge wrote.

“Prison staff doesn’t have to impose race-based lockdowns in order to ensure security,” said the Prison Law Office’s Evenson. The group is pushing for an injunction to halt the practice across the state.“They’ve gotten used to using it as a convenient shortcut, and prisoners continue to suffer just because of the color of their skin."

Elizabeth Cabraser

April 12, 2013, 2:18 p.m.

Good coverage of a very interesting case.  The prisoners would be well served to find a quality law firm to take the lead.  The public interest lawyers handling it now are mediocre at best and historically have not represented the state’s inmates competently.

I appreciate what the administrators think they need to do, and why, but it majorly violates any essential sense of fairness, surely stirring up righteous outrage, which the prison climate does not need. If necessary, color-code and house the prisoners using a “violence” or “danger” quotient factor, based on documented gang membership and previous participation in violent acts. This will mean prisoners of mixed races will be housed together, and when things get tense the cell-mates with little or no history of propensity to violence can be let out for exercize/socializing in the yard while the others remain locked up… i.e. a performance not racially based merit and privilege system.
Group counseling for mixed groups in all cells might be necessary and effective. Do the inmates receive any now?

I can appreciate that any “race"based” policy to enhance security or discipline appears discriminatory if viewed simply as based on segregation but . . . thank God for the penitentiary! What’s a prison system the size of California’s to do? California is known to have the largest gang population in the country and gang members and gang associates are among the most vicious, dangerous inmates - we’re not talking about different groups mingling together on the “yard” and throwing spitballs at each other during recess but violence-prone individuals that lack discipline and respect for human life - which is - ahem - why they’re in prison in the first place.

If the California prison system is enforcing a policy that meets the State’s requirement to incarcerate those sentenced to a prison facility - and also minimize the harm inmates can inflict on one another - I say more power to California.

Thanks for reporting, ProPublic.  BUT…what an inflammatory headline!  May get readers but doesn’t help understanding of basic issues.  Too bad the race card trumps all others.

This article makes me curious as to what would make me feel safer if I was in prison.  The article lacks any input from prisoners themselves who could provide meaningful insight to race and prison life.  I would like to hear testimonials from california inmates if there are any.

Input from prisoners not involved in relating lawsuits.

What please tell us is the answer? I understand the prisons frustration.

If the cards were not color coded would that change what the prisons feel they must do to protect guards and other inmates?

Prisons use segregation of populations in other areas as well, known pedofiles, former police officers etc.

Would people go with segregation of gang members based on gang affiliation? Sounds like a good idea. Warring gangs would put guards at risk.

Should prisoners be segregated according to religious affiliation? A Senate sub-committee expressed concern of radicalizing towards radical Islam.

I personally can not be a bleeding heart with regards to this issue.

I witnessed this harmful practice firsthand as a volunteer instructor at Solano prison. 

I taught a literature class, and inmates competed for acceptance into this good-behavior and credit-based program, which allowed them to earn some minimal credits towards an associate degrees.  Being in this program gave inmates a strong sense of accomplishment, and positive use of their time.

Nothing AGGRAVATED as well as CREATED racial tensions like this policy.  How could it NOT fuel racial violence, when the whole are punished for the actions of one, continuously, not their own choices or own behavior, and the institution segregates and punishes groups by race? 

I lost all the black students in the program mid semester due to a 2-month lockdown of all black men b/c an inmate—- someone none of us knew, someone not in the education program—started a fight in the yard.

This is the kind of policy that CREATES gang identity, because it doesn’t allow inmates to have to work together across lines, or build trust or intimacy. Your race is how you are defined here—this is what the prison tells them every day.  This kind of policy caused immense stress on inmates. It was like living in a powder keg every day, to literally not be allowed to associate across racial lines.

I know about a dozen White California inmates in 4 prisons that like the racial segregation policies. It is to their benefit because their group isn’t the one that is constantly getting into trouble.

With the understanding that I’m against race-based policies and also not fond of our modern prison system, I don’t see a very obvious question:

Where’s the formal reasoning behind the policy?  What incidents has segregation obviously prevented?  Or is this a “I keep a banana in my ear to scare the alligators off the lawn” kind of thing?

Presenting policies like this is a great tactic in arguments.
Authority:  We have to do this thing.
Observer:  That’s horrible.
Authority:  Well I don’t see you proposing a better alternative, you self-entitled liberal jerk!

Jodi’s right, the downsides of these sorts of policies are studied and known.  So where’s the rationale behind using it here?  If there is none, or it’s just a “something” ‘for people who “have to do something,” then it’s bad outright.

However, if there’s evidence that it does more good than harm, then it should be shifted over time to a policy that’s more effective, with monitoring and feedback.

As an example, we imprison more people than any other country.  Does that contribute to the problems and, if so, would rehabilitation and leniency for non-violent offenders be a better way of segregating?

I believe these kind of policies perpetuate the racism thats been festering in the california prison system, if it is not the very thing that is creating it.

Although, I wish that inmates were able to see that this is merely a CONSTRUCTION of “reality”; one that only works as a revolving door where they, the inmates, suffer all the punishments and are unable to rise above the environment. I know it’s so much easier to say “rise above it”, than it is to actually do it (especially in an environment as unnatural as prison), but someone still needs to say it.

People—in general—are also more likely to resort to violence as control over their life decreases. Food for thought.

Lastly, isn’t it a BIT hypocritical to say “don’t be racist; don’t prejudge someone based on the color of their skin” and then use race as a solitary measure for who gets punished?

It’s much easier to say that prisoners are violent and illogical and that they deserve to be locked away, and to throw away the key; It’s easier to believe the system we live under has all the right answers, the right policies, and the right ideas… But wake up!—we are doing something tremendously wrong, and a LOT of people are suffering unreasonably.

oh good grief— now the liberal thought police are going after prison ‘racism’  ... well you dopey people who have no clue how the real world work.  thats to save lives.

pelican bay prison is in a state of perpetual race war. 

so for you all who think its all rainbows and unicorns—wake up. you make it any different than it is now. and you’ll have hundreds of dead prisoners.

This is all crap. The inmates are not officially segregated along racial lines but are divided according to their self-formed prison gangs that the inmate created themselves along racial lines. We don’t just say, “Let’s lock down all Hispanic inmates. We caught them fighting.” No, we say, “Southern Hispanics (Surenos) and Blacks have yard, but we’ll have to lock up ALL of the Northern Hispanics (Nortenos)  and Whites because we don’t, the policy is that if any one of your homies is in a fight, you are required to back him up or get stabbed later by your homey.” You can be Black and be a Northern Hispanic. You can be White and be a Black (but usually never the reverse). These are all rules that the inmates have made up for themselves. Heck, there’s even a free-for-all ethnic gang called “Others” for those who don’t fit into the narrow boxes the inmates have formed for themselves. Still, EVERY inmate joins a gang by default for protection. If you don’t, your life will be miserable and short, as you will be the target of every single inmate in the prison.

The state actually has to enforce a court-imposed racial integration policy. The state used to segregate inmates along racial lines because of security reasons, but now, we just let the inmates do it themselves. The moment we really press the issue of racial integration by forcing these guys to house together, and these guys start immediately killing each other, we’ll immediately be accused of staging fights.

There is no win with the touchy-feely uber-liberals who will let inmates cost taxpayers money by paying for them to sue over broken cookies (a real case, BTW).

I work in a Northern Ca prison and lockdowns are done by race all the time. One week the blacks are locked down due to the actions of one black. On one yard the blacks were locked down for two years. Same with Southern or Northern Mexicans, Asians, Others, etc…

If the prison is ever given a court order to stop my guess is they’ll say fine… if one inmate screws up then all the inmates are going on lockdown (which also happens when there’s missing metal or a kite - note - is intercepted with information of potential violence).

This is one more instance where the courts should stay out of it and leave it to the professionals.  The fact of the matter is lockdowns based on the involved races save lives and increase safety. Is it completely fair and equitable, absolutely not but it is probably the best guideline and tool that can be used under the circumstances. The average citizen or judge or lawyer for that matter has no idea how race is leveraged in prison and this kind feel good liberal pandering will make institutions less safe. I say this from a perspective of having worked for 23 years behind the walls. The relationship between the various ethnic factions will deteriorate not improve under such a scheme as this.

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