U.S. Supreme Court Debates Use of Racial Segregation in Prisons

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON

The Supreme Court took up a racial segregation case last month that asks if Black California inmates are being unconstitutionally bunked together for months at a time, in the name of keeping prisons safe.

The Bush administration has sided with a Black convicted killer who claims he has been humiliated by forced prison segregation.

Fifty years after the Supreme Court declared racial segregation unconstitutional in public schools, said acting Solicitor General Paul Clement, the court must make clear that governments cannot separate people based on skin color in other places without the strongest of reasons.

Clement reminded the court of America's "uniquely pernicious history" of racial discrimination in prisons, evoking images of chain gangs and prison farms in the Deep South. The case, Johnson v. California, poses an interesting conflict for the high court. Since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the court has repeatedly held that racial segregation is unacceptable, including a 1968 decision barfing blanket segregation in prisons.

But justices have also given prison officials a free hand in managing their facilities, to control violence and protect inmates and those who guard them.

"California is ground zero for race-based prison and street gangs," Frances Grunder, the state's senior assistant attorney general, told the court as she defended temporary segregation of inmates.

At issue is an unwritten California policy, dating back more than 25 years, requiring officials to assign newly arrived Black prisoners to bunk only with other Black prisoners for two months or more. Inmates are separated again by race when they transfer to a new facility.

Grunder said similar inmate segregation is also used in Texas and Oklahoma. California has more than 165,000 inmates and violence can erupt if White and Black gang members are mixed, she said. …