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Ninth Circuit: Race-Based Prison Lockdowns Must Satisfy Strict-Scrutiny Standard

In a ruling with potentially wide-ranging implications, the Ninth Circuit held that race-based prison lockdowns fail to meet the strict-scrutiny standard announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 505-07 (2005) [PLN, July 2005, p.22], at least where no evidence is proffered to show a linkage between the identified perpetrators of violence and the larger racial group of prisoners that is subjected to lockdowns.

In September 2003, Dewayne Richardson, a black prisoner serving a life sentence, filed a § 1983 complaint alleging violations of his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and due process rights, and his Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, following a series of lockdowns at High Desert State Prison. As a result of the lock-downs, black prisoners remained on lockdown status for all but a few days of a nine-month period, for the sole reason that they were the same race as the alleged perpetrator(s) of an actual or planned assault.

In some cases, prison officials believed they had information implicating members of a prison gang in the incident which precipitated the lockdown. In one such instance, that information proved to have been fabricated by a prison guard. Other cases proved to be isolated disputes. The district court ruled against Richardson on all of his claims.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit, relying on Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995) [PLN, Aug. 1995, p.1], affirmed the district court’s judgment with respect to due process, holding that whatever deprivation of liberty Richardson may have experienced, it did not rise to the level of an “atypical and significant hardship ... in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.” It reversed, however, with respect to Richardson’s equal protection and Eighth Amendment claims.

As to the latter, the Court of Appeals noted the defendants’ concession that “exercise is one of the basic human necessities protected by the Eighth Amendment,” and observed that while a 30-day emergency lockdown had been held not to violate the Eighth Amendment, the cumulative total of the lockdowns at High Desert State Prison greatly exceeded thirty days.
Whether the facts justified the extended deprivation of exercise, the Court held, required a more fully developed record, precluding summary judgment.

Most significantly, however, the Ninth Circuit remanded Richardson’s claim of racially-discriminatory lockdowns for a trial on the merits. The Court flatly rejected the defendants’ argument that “without showing any linkage between the per-petrators and the prisoners subjected to the lockdown, it was enough to assume that race alone tied together the perpetrators and the larger group.” The appellate court noted that such an argument would fall short even under a weaker “rea sonableness” standard. The case was returned to the district court for further proceedings. See: Richardson v. Runnels, 594 F.3d 666 (9th Cir. 2010) (amended opinion).

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Related legal case

Richardson v. Runnels