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Prison Path

California Stops Race-Based Punishment



In 2006, two guards were attacked by inmates at California’s High Desert State Prison. The warden ordered a full lockdown, which restricted all African Americans in one wing of the prison to their cells for 14 months. For 14 months there was no outdoor exercise, no education and/or rehabilitation programs, and no prison jobs.

We are now in 2014, and just this week California has consented to stop race-based punishment. Prison officials in California used race as the criteria for their lockdown decisions to control prison violence. It was evident that the race-based punishment was designed to control prison’s gangs. By using such tactics, even if an African American inmate was not a gang member or even if the inmate’s gang was not involved, all members of the same race suffered the same harsh retribution. As many as 160 race-based lockdowns lasting six weeks or longer in any given year in California.

This week, California agreed to give up its unique use of race-based punishment as a tool to control violence in its crowded prisons. Corrections chief Jeffrey Beard and lawyers for inmates have settled a six-year-long civil rights lawsuit, filed in 2008, over the High Desert lockdown.

The case was eventually widened to cover all prisoners and lockdown practices that had become common statewide. The agreement now goes to a federal judge for expected approval.

Prison officials had said that using race to implement lockdowns and other restrictions on inmate movement was an important safety tool.

They cited the need to immobilize large segments of the prison population while conducting investigations after riots and other violent events and to help hide the identities of inmates who might be helping them.

Inmates’ lawyers said the state was using race as a stand-in for gang involvement, unfairly punishing prisoners who had done nothing wrong.

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