SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Ending a long-standing practice, California prison officials have agreed to stop using race as a principal criterion in segregating inmates.
The prison system's settlement of a case filed by a black inmate comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February that California prisons cannot automatically house inmates by race, even temporarily.
"This is a fundamental sea change in the way the Department of Corrections does business," Bert Deixler, a Los Angeles-based attorney who represented the inmate, said in a statement.
The settlement between the inmate and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was filed last week with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and was made public Monday.
Starting in March, prison officials will end their use of an unwritten policy that dates back a quarter century. Inmates arriving at the state's 11 reception centers had been bunked automatically with inmates of the same race for 60 days, a measure taken in part to reduce the risk of racial violence.
Once processed, inmates were assigned to a cell in one of the state's 33 prisons on a largely nonracial basis. They were segregated again by race whenever they were transferred.
"The policy now is that an offender's race will not be used as a sole determining factor in housing," corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. "Our primary goal is to ensure that racial integration is completed in a manner that maximizes institutional security."
Beginning in March, corrections officials in the reception centers will house inmates based on new criteria. That will include interviews to determine inmates' compatibility with members of another race, their age, the type of crime they committed and their physical characteristics.
The department will train its personnel and create a tracking system to determine if future violence in reception areas is based on race.
All reception centers are to comply with the policy by March 2007. It will spread to the general inmate population by 2008, Thornton said.
Thornton did not have an estimate on the cost of implementing the settlement. But it will have an immediate and wide-ranging effect on the nation's largest prison system. Of California's 167,700 state prison inmates, 37 percent are Hispanic, 29 percent are black, 28 percent are white and 6 percent are classified as another race.
The settlement is the final chapter in a legal saga that began in 1995, when inmate Garrison Johnson filed a lawsuit challenging the department's practice of segregating inmates.
Johnson, who is black, has been imprisoned since 1987 and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life for murder, robbery and assault.
His lawyer said he has been housed with black inmates during his entire time in prison. Sharing a cell only with other blacks, Johnson claimed, pressured him to join a black prison gang and put him in danger when he refused, Deixler said.
The U.S. District Court and 9th Circuit sided with prison officials, who historically were given great leeway to determine the best way to group inmates.
In a 5-3 decision in February, however, the Supreme Court said prisons cannot use race to segregate inmates except under extraordinary circumstances.
It sent the case back to the 9th Circuit, but California corrections officials decided to reach a settlement rather than produce evidence proving that their practice was necessary and effective.