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California’s Race-Based Prison Lockdowns Targeted in Class-Action Lawsuit

The Prison Law Office (PLO) has teamed up with the San Francisco-based law firm of Bingham McCutchen, LLP to challenge the official policy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to impose blanket race-based lockdowns in response to potential security threats.

The lawsuit alleges that the CDCR’s failure to conduct timely individualized assessments to determine whether every prisoner of the affected race in fact poses a threat to institutional safety and security renders its lockdown policy racially discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005) [PLN, April 2006, p.20; July 2005, p.22], that the CDCR’s policy of using race as the determinative factor in housing assignments for prisoners was akin to segregation and thus subject to “strict scrutiny” analysis. That is, the policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment unless prison officials could show it was “narrowly tailored” to advance a “compelling governmental interest.” It is likely the same analysis would equally apply to any race-based prison policy.

Indeed, a year before Johnson, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in a case which foreshadowed the Supreme Court’s ruling that equal protection rights were implicated when California prison officials used race as the predominate factor in compiling critical-worker lists during lockdowns. Walker v. Gomez, 370 F.3d 969 (9th Cir. 2004) [PLN, April 2005, p.34].

The PLO’s class-action lawsuit alleges that the CDCR imposes more than 350 blanket race-based lockdowns every year, roughly one a day, nominally for the purpose of managing prison violence and gangs. While acknowledging the seriousness of those problems, the suit alleges that the CDCR’s policies exacerbate rather than ameliorate racial tensions and violence inside California prisons.

“The race-based lockdowns,” the lawsuit states, “cause Plaintiffs to suffer from extreme anxiety and depression – the result of being locked up for 24 hours per day in a tiny cell, typically with another prisoner, where both prisoners must eat, use the toilet, sleep, exercise and carry on all aspects of daily life, even though there is barely enough room for two prisoners to stand up at the same time – and severe humiliation, as a result of being segregated and punished solely on account of race, while members of other racial groups move freely throughout the prison.”

In a separate but related claim, the lawsuit alleges that the CDCR has a policy and practice of imposing lockdowns for excessively long periods of time in violation of the Eighth Amendment. It cites four examples of lockdowns lasting longer than a year, eight lockdowns extending over 200 days, and more than 80 times when lockdowns lasted over 60 days.

The lawsuit, which remains pending, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. See: Mitchell v. Felker, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:08-cv-01196-RAJ.

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Related legal case

Mitchell v. Felker