|Pelican Bay Prison. Image courtesy CDCR website.|
Pelican Bay racially segregates prisoners and, during extended periods of perceived threatened violence, denies family visits, work assignments, yard exercise, religious services and other privileges to prisoners of one race while granting those same privileges to prisoners of other races. This habeas proceeding was brought by a Hispanic prisoner alleging that the prison's policy of disparate treatment based on race and ethnicity denies him equal protection of the laws.
This particular proceeding was tied to a 2008 incident between Hispanic inmates, which led to a segregation of all Hispanic inmates' access to programs, which apparently remained in effect for almost three years. The result of the effective lockdown on Hispanic inmates was that only inmates classified racially as "other", meaning, mostly Asian inmates, had to work double shifts in prison. Other inmates were denied visitation, exercise, religious services, and other privileges. In short, no one won.
The decision relies on a Supreme Court case, Johnson v. California, which held that government officials are not permitted "to use race as a proxy for gang membership and violence without demonstrating a compelling government interest and proving that their means are narrowly tailored" to advance that interest.
The decision in Morales extends that logic to race-based punishment, giving prison authorities narrow leeway to separate inmates based on ethnicity only if prison security requires it, so long as it is done "[o]n a short-term emergency basis" and not "preferentially".
One of the notable things about the decision is the judges' sensitivity to the chicken-and-egg nature of race-based classification. While some administrative policies are a result of gang-related racial hostilities, the classification in itself threatens not only "to stigmatize individuals by reason of their membership in a racial group" but also, importantly, "to incite racial hostility."
Another notable thing is the court's attentiveness to nuance. While many inmates are affiliated with a gang based on their race, not all inmates are affiliated with a gang, and to assume otherwise is to discriminate.
One hopes that the combination of this decision, and the agreement to end racial hostilities in Pelican Bay, will transform carceral practices so that racial strife, whether stemming from gang animosities or institutional unfairness, will diminish if not end.