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Complaint says California prisons resort to excessive, race-based lockdowns

A California Department of Corrections officer at Chino State Prison waits for a prison door to be opened on December 10, 2010 in Chino, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
A California Department of Corrections officer at Chino State Prison waits for a prison door to be opened on December 10, 2010 in Chino, California.

Attorneys for prison inmates sued California Wednesday in federal court to end race-based lockdowns in state penitentiaries.

Prisons lock down inmates after riots to quell the violence, investigate the cause - and isolate the inmates involved. The law gives prison officials a lot of discretion to use lockdowns - but there are limits.

KPCC’s Julie Small reports the class action lawsuit alleges that race-based lockdowns violate inmate rights.

California’s High Desert State Prison in north eastern Lassen County, is a maximum security facility. Following a violent incident there in the warden locked down a group of African-American inmates for 18 months. One of them, Robert Mitchell, stayed in the double-bunked cell he shared with another inmate--24 hours a day – seven days a week. Prison Law Office attorney Rebekah Evenson who is representing Mitchell says the type of discriminatory deprivation the inmate suffered is common in California prisons—and illegal.

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Complaint filed by Prison Law Office against California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

"Two prisoners stuck in a cell built for the size of one person – many instances," says Evenson. "Two people can’t even stand up in the cell at the same time, they’re so small – 24 hours a day. No outside air. No recreation. No ability to do any exercise."

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that preventing a prisoner from outdoor exercise for more than six weeks is “cruel and unusual punishment.” The Prison Law Office says in the last fiscal year, 161 lockdowns lasted more than six weeks. Seven had been going on for more than a year. One has lasted a decade. But Evenson says a lockdown is illegal from day one if race was the sole criterion for choosing which inmates are locked down.

Corrections officials say wardens do use race as one criterion to decide who’s locked down . "The difficulty is in California, 'race-based' and 'gang-based' are basically the same," says Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate.

Cate says gangs generally control prisoners of the same race. Walk through any prison yard, says Cate, and ask Hispanic inmates if they belong to a race-based gang. Here's why:

"They may say, 'No,'" says Cate. "But if you say, 'What if the Hispanic inmates were attacked by the white inmates, would you jump in?' They’d say, 'Yes, I have to. Otherwise I’m going to be the subject of violence if I don’t.' It’s easy maybe on paper and litigation filing to say, 'Well, see? That’s race-based.' But on those yards, those men don’t know the difference between race and gangs."

Lockdown description - CDCR Program Status Report

"Well, that is precisely the gross stereotyping that is driving their misguided policy," says Evenson. Evenson recognizes there are race-based gangs in prison, "But not every Hispanic person is going to become a member of the gang."

The Prison Law Office wants Corrections to end race-based lockdowns. It wants prison officials to assess each inmate’s threat to prison security, no matter what race – and as soon as violence has cooled and the prison’s secure, lift restrictions for inmates who pose no threat to security. The Prison Law Office also wants Corrections to end lengthy lockdowns.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says his department tracks prison lockdowns but has no plans to limit their frequency or length. He worries if he did that, someone could get hurt. "In many cases, we had wardens or a director struggle to figure out how do we get these men to not kill each other when they’re on that yard together."

But the union for prison guards in California worries that lengthy lockdowns increase threats to staff and inmates. Ryan Sherman with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association says inmates released from lockdown often lash out immediately.

"Usually with prolonged lockdowns," says Sherman, "you have increased frustration and anger built up amongst the inmate population. And it just triggers even more violence when they finally are released."

Sherman and the prison guards union say you can reduce lockdowns if you reduce violence in prisons. And they say the Department of Corrections can do that if it stops cramming inmates into prisons – and starts staffing prisons with more guards.

Weekly California prison lockdown summary 4/4/2010

For more than 18 months, KPCC journalists have been asking the public to tell our reporters what it’s like to live, work or have loved ones in prisons. We ask general questions about life in prison, and more specific questions about prison medical care, changing prison conditions and lockdowns.