Prison Law Office Demands an End to Race-based Lockdowns in California Prisons
According to official prison reports, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) frequently subjects entire racial groups to lockdowns, restricting the access of all prisoners of that racial group to medical care, religious services, family visits, and other resources for an average of more than three months at a time. Yesterday the Prison Law Office, a leading prisoners’ rights non-profit law firm based in Berkeley, Calif., issued a demand letter requesting that CDCR cease this practice. From the Prison Law Office letter to Secretary Matthew Cate (full PDF available here):
African-American prisoners from CSP-Solano wrote to us complaining that the institution continues its practice of locking prisoners down based only on racial classification, despite a decision by a California Superior Court that this practice was unlawful. … Several Northern Hispanic prisoners in one facility at CSP-Sacramento have written to us stating that they have been on “modified program” more or less continuously for the last ten years, and as a result receive fewer privileges, job opportunities and yard time than prisoners of other races. More than twenty African-Americans prisoners housed at Kern Valley State Prison informed us that all African-American prisoners in certain facilities have been locked down frequently as a consequence of fights between individual African-American prisoners, and that even African-American prisoners who are “unaffiliated” must endure extended denials of their rights or privileges with respect to movement, feeding, ducats, visiting, work, shower, medical, library, dayroom, recreation, canteen, packages, phone calls, family visits and religious services. Over a dozen White prisoners in one facility at SATF wrote to us complaining of multiple lengthy lockdowns; some informed us that they had been locked down for over a year. These deprivations of rights are imposed purely on the basis of race and even apply to prisoners who arrived at the prison after the date of the incident which provoked the lockdown.
The Prison Law Office argues that extended racially based lockdowns violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While prisons are legally permitted to take race into account for safety reasons, any racially discriminatory disciplinary practices must be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest, under Johnson v. California (2005). The letter concludes: “Even if the prisons were permitted to enforce race-based lockdowns for brief periods of time ‘as a necessary and temporary response to a race riot or other serious threat of race-related violence,’ … such race-based policies cannot remain in effect for weeks and even months as CDCR’s lockdowns too often do.”