This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
A California appeals court Wednesday upheld an order for the state's super-max prison to stop punishing inmates by race, following four-year lockdowns of southern Latino inmates because officials feared their gang ties.
The warden of Pelican Bay State Prison contended race-based practices were forced by "long-standing and constant hostilities between rival Hispanic prison gangs," whose "repeated efforts to attack each other at every opportunity" threaten prison safety.
California prison manuals identify seven prison gangs along racial lines, including Latino inmates from Southern California with the Mexican Mafia and Northern California Latinos with La Nuestra Familia. A Del Norte County trial court found Pelican Bay "has an unwritten policy of using race as the primary factor determining housing assignments, activity levels, and restrictions among the general population of inmates."
The trial court found a prison committee divides inmates in five racial or ethnic groups: white, black, northern Latino, southern Latino, and a fifth group of mostly Asian inmates. Cells are even color-coded by those assignments, such as red for southern Latinos. Prison officials testified that the system merely reflects the way inmates themselves break into groups.
The court case was filed by the Prison Law Office on behalf of a Latino inmate who was denied visits and other privileges because of his race, and contended the prison uses race "as a proxy for gang membership" without proof of any gang affiliation.
[Updated 4:55 p.m. Jan. 23: State prison officials responded by calling management of gang-related violence "complex and challenging." Agency spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is reviewing the decision, to decide if updated policies address the issues raised by the court, and whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
While the San Francisco appellate court concurred Wednesday that racially motivated violence is a problem at Pelican Bay, the justices said the prison takes the practice too far, using race to segregate prisoners, deny family visits and to issue assignments for work, religious services and yard time years at a time.
Pelican Bay imposed a general lockdown after a 2000 prison riot, but only southern Latino inmates were kept on lockdown and denied exercise for four years after. At another time, only Asian inmates were given work assignments and the privileges that go with them. Those practices were to end under a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but were reinstituted at Pelican Bay sometime before 2009.
The appellate decision notes Pelican Bay has been ordered to cease race-based practices as far back as 10 years ago.
"If the warden doesn’t cease these racially discriminatory practices he will be in contempt of court," said Don Specter, lead attorney in the case for the Prison Law Office.
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-- Paige St. John in Sacramento
Image: inmates in 2010 on the exercise yard at California State Prison in Los Angeles. Photo by Gary Friedman/ Los Angeles Times.