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The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that pointed out California State Prisons severe overcrowding problem also shed light on another problem. Even more startling in California than the “cruel and unusual punishment” of being caged over capacity is that lock downs inside the prison are classified by race. Yes, you read that right. And this is 2011.
During lockdowns, which are often as a result of a gang fight, all members of each race are confined to their cells for 24 hours a day, regardless of whether they were involved in the incident. This means that many inmates can find themselves denied exercise, educational programs, family visits and even sunlight for months at a time for merely being the same race as an inmate involved in a fight.
California denies that there is an official policy of locking down inmates according to race. All members of a specific gang are locked down when one member is involved in a fight. Since so many gangs are formed from ethnic lines, it appears that there are race based lockdowns. Despite the rationale, there are numerous documents from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations Appeals Branch “note that the CDCR policy is that when there is an incident involving any race, all inmates of that race are locked up.” This doesn’t seem to mention gangs at all.
“There is no policy,” said Levance Quinn, public information officer for Sacramento State Prison. “But I understand from the outside looking in how someone could confuse that,” he said. Quinn further explained that lockdowns are related to gangs and not ethnicity. He stated that gang fights happen all the time and that multiple gangs exist within each racial or ethnic group. Those types of fights — when one white gang fights another white gang, for example — aren’t big security issues. The problem occurs when members of two different racial groups fight, said Quinn, because prison culture dictates that inmates must stick up for their fellow brothers.”If someone from a black gang fights someone from a white gang, then all the blacks and all the whites get involved. So then you have to lock everyone down to make sure it’s safe,” he said.
Last year in Sacramento, black and southern Hispanic inmates in a certain prison section were locked down for 24 hours a day for 11 months. Quinn said that even though black and southern Hispanic inmates who had nothing to do with the fight were on lockdown for nearly a year, it’s not indicative of an institutional race-based policy. “It’s not based on their race; it’s based on these two knuckleheads that got in a fight,” said Quinn. “It’s really hard to explain to the outside world,” he added.