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No Deference for Awful Prison's Awful Race-Based Restrictions

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

In 2004, in response to inmate violence, California State Prison at Corcoran instituted harsh restrictions on prisoners -- especially black prisoners. When an inmate sued, the jury was instructed that, while the restrictions should be judged by strict scrutiny, jurors should also give deference to prison officials' decisions. That's some sort of scrutiny, but it's not a strict one, the Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday.

In doing so, the court was forced to navigate somewhat conflicting Supreme Court precedents. On the one hand, strict scrutiny applies to racial classifications in prison. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has also ruled that courts must give deference to correctional officials when it comes ensuring the safety of prisoners. That deference, the Ninth found, doesn't reach far enough to touch equal protection claims.

Not Your Friendly, Neighborhood Prison

Corcoran has long had a reputation as one of the state's most brutal prisons. Home to Charles Manson, Corcoran once had the highest rate of inmate killings in the U.S. In the mid-'90s, the FBI investigated the prison over claims that guards organized inmates into gladiator-style fighting matches. If you have to go to prison, Corcoran is not where you want to go.

In the early months of 2004, Corcoran saw a series of violent events, some of which had a racial component. There were, for example, "riots involving white inmates" and multiple incidents "involving African American inmates associated with gangs." In response, the prison instituted a lockdown on African American inmates, explaining that "a coalition of Black inmates are plotting the murder of staff." Restrictions were later extended to all prisoners, and then removed for all except black inmates. The prison's Program Status Report said that continued attacks indicated "a mindset by this ethnic group to harm staff." Thought it appears the violence was largely gang related, the restrictions were imposed on all black prisoners because of their race.

As part of the restrictions, black prisoners were forced to shower while handcuffed. During his shower, prisoner Garrick Harrington slipped, injuring his back. He filed suit, alleging, among other claims, that the restrictions violated his right to equal protection.

Strict Scrutiny Isn't Deferential

As the Ninth Circuit pointed out, it is "longstanding" and "fundamental" principle that prisoners are protected against race discrimination. Any racial classification of prisoners must stand up to strict scrutiny. When Harrington's case reached trial, the jury was instructed that the state must narrowly tailor race-based actions to meet a compelling government interest. But, they were also instructed that they "should consider" officials competing obligations under the Eighth Amendment to ensure safety and "respect and give deference to the opinion of prison officials."

That, Harrington argued, wasn't the kind of exacting review strict scrutiny requires. The Ninth Circuit agreed. Though some cases have given deference to prison officials, those have never been applied race-based classifications. That deference has primarily been reserved for the use of force and confinement decisions.

While there is a place for deference to prison officials, the Ninth wrote, it is not in claims governed by strict scrutiny.

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