SACRAMENTO, California — A federal judge said Wednesday that he will consider whether California's policy of locking up prisoners by race violates the constitutional rights of the roughly 125,000 male inmates within the state prison system.
U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley of Sacramento granted class-action status in a lawsuit challenging the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's policy of locking all inmates of a particular race in their cells after a fight involving any member of that racial group.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2008 by one inmate, Robert Mitchell, after he and all other black inmates at High Desert State Prison in Susanville were locked in their cells following a fight. The legal challenge will now apply to all male inmates.
Gangs in California prisons typically are based on race, and fights often involve members of one race against one another. State law says the department can target specific racial and ethnic groups only when necessary to prevent further violence, and the response must be "narrowly tailored."
The U.S. Justice Department last year intervened in the case, saying the practice violates the equal-protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment. Attorneys say no other state has a similar policy.
The department puts each inmate into one of four racial groupings: Black, White, Hispanic and "Other," according to the ruling.
A second inmate testified as part of the case that because he is classified as Hispanic "Other," he has been locked in his cell when the department restricts the movements of all "Hispanics" and has also been locked down when the department restricts those whose ethnicity is "Other."
Nunley scolded the department for denying in its legal filings that it has a statewide policy, saying it is clear from the evidence that a written policy has existed at least since 2007 and was renewed in 2012.
"Both of these policies utilize race in lockdown situations," he wrote in the 15-page ruling. "As such, the Court finds any assertion denying the existence of the CDCR's policy to be insincere at the very least ... "
Corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department is reviewing the ruling.
The policy is similar to another California practice that the U.S. Supreme Court found to be discriminatory a decade ago: segregating inmates by race in their cells and sleeping areas to prevent gang violence.
"This is an important step forward toward vindicating the rights of all prisoners to be treated fairly regardless of race," said Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the nonprofit Prison Law Office that filed the new challenge.