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California Three-Year Lockdown of "Southern Hispanics" Held Unconstitutional

California Three-Year Lockdown of "Southern Hispanics" Held Unconstitutional

by Marvin Mentor

A Del Monte County, California superior court ruled on December 10, 2002 that a three year lockdown of "Southern Hispanics" at maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) was unconstitutional because it discriminated on the basis of ethnicity. The court ordered PBSP Warden Joe McGrath to speed up the process of releasing non-problematic prisoners from lockdown - irrespective of the ethnicity they identified with - by delivering a report to the court within 90 days detailing how this would be accomplished. And in a far-reaching effort to reverse prison policies that further a "culture of separation," the habeas court ordered McGrath to produce an additional plan within 120 days showing how he would improve race relations at PBSP.

Aaron Escalera was one of hundreds of Southern Hispanics locked down continuously since a racially motivated riot at PBSP in February, 2000. Although the riot occurred in "B" Facility -between Southern Hispanic and Black prisoners - Escalera and all other Southern Hispanics in "A" Facility were also slammed. Escalera's complaint was that they and others in "A" Facility, who never participated in the "B" Facility riot, were being selectively punished solely on the basis of their ethnicity - which is unconstitutional. Worse yet, over the intervening three years, all Southern Hispanics transferring into PBSP were automatically included in the disadvantaged group solely based upon their PBSP-certified ethnicity.

The court was quick to recognize that the designations of "ethnicity," on the one hand, and "gang affiliation," on the other hand, are often inseparable. But the court observed that PBSP's policy of isolating and treating prisoners because of their self-proclaimed affiliations amounted to a state-sanctioned "culture of separation" that ultimately served to foment increased racial tension. This system, Escalera complained - and the court agreed - provided no exit for individuals who wished to extract themselves from this endless condemnation.

While recognizing that the preferential status among Southern Hispanics - a highly structured prison gang organization - was to indeed maintain their unity through proclaiming their separate identity, the court observed that the constitutional threshold of ethnic discrimination had been crossed by PBSP's system, which only allowed one to get in - but not out - of the consequences of an "affiliation" designation by prison staff.

Warden McGrath had recognized the problem, and, through a January 2000 memorandum, already announced a policy to release prisoners from lockdown if they agreed to refrain from gang-related activities. But the court found that this process was woefully understaffed and slow, as evidenced by the continuing three year lockdown.

The effect of the court's order is to require PBSP to add significant resources to the release-review process and to concomitantly require an effective long-range plan aimed at reducing racial tensions and the attendant unconstitutional ethnically-based discrimination. See: Escalera v. Terhune and McGrath, Del Norte County, CA Superior Court No. HCPB 00-5164 (Dec. 10, 2002).

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Related legal case

Escalera v. Terhune and McGrath