Justices Slam Prison Segregation; but Practice OK under 'Strict Scrutiny,' Court Says
Byline: Guy Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Supreme Court yesterday condemned the use of racial segregation in state prisons, but left open the possibility that the practice still may be employed in special cases to prevent jailhouse violence.
"Prisons are dangerous places, and the special circumstances they present may justify racial classifications in some contexts," said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a 5-3 majority decision that stopped short of calling prison segregation unconstitutional.
At issue was an unwritten, 25-year-old California Department of Corrections policy that involves dividing new and transferred male inmates by race for their first 60 days of incarceration. The prisoners are evaluated during the period to determine where to ultimately house them.
Although the Supreme Court deemed it unlawful for states to use such practices on a routine basis, the justices did not declare all racial classification in prisons to be unconstitutional. Instead, they ordered the matter back to lower courts for further review in light of their position that prison segregation may be applied only under "strict scrutiny."
The case stemmed from a challenge by Garrison S. Johnson, a black convicted murderer who was subjected to California's segregation policy after being imprisoned in 1987 and during several subsequent prison transfers. Johnson argued that the policy violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection. Lower courts disagreed and upheld California's policy.
California has the nation's largest prison population, with more than 300,000 inmates. The state argued its policy was a necessary and effective means of preventing violence. California officials cited numerous incidents of racial violence in the state's prisons and identified several race-based prison gangs, including the "Mexican Mafia, Nuestro Familia, Black Guerilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Low Riders. …