High court bars most inmate segregation
5-3 decision widens view of US policies that classify by race
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court extended its skepticism of government policies that classify by race, ruling yesterday that state prisons cannot segregate inmates, even temporarily, except under extraordinary circumstances.
The 5-to-3 decision set aside a lower-court ruling for California that said prisons should have wide leeway to impose race restrictions for safety reasons. It all but ended a longstanding policy in California and called into question prison restrictions in two other states.
Since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the court repeatedly has held that racial classifications by the government are usually unacceptable. Prisons should be no different even if the restrictions are temporary, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the majority.
"In the prison context, when the government's power is at its apex, we think that searching judicial review of racial classifications is necessary to guard against invidious discrimination," O'Connor wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that justices generally have given prison officials a free hand in managing their facilities to control violence. California's system has been a "breeding ground" for violent gangs, warranting judicial deference.
"The majority is concerned with sparing inmates the indignity and stigma of racial discrimination. California is concerned with their safety and saving their lives," Thomas wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justice John Paul Stevens filed a separate dissent, arguing that the prison segregation should be declared outright discriminatory.
At issue was an unwritten California policy requiring officials to automatically bunk inmates by race for the first 60 days after their arrival. After an evaluation for dangerousness, inmates are then assigned to a permanent cell on a nonracial basis. Inmates are separated again by race when they transfer to a new facility.
Under the ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit must scrutinize California's 25-year-old policy for hard evidence that it is necessary and works, a burden that will be hard to meet. At least two other states, Texas and Oklahoma, apply similar policies to new inmates, and that also could be challenged.
California's prison system, with roughly 160,000 inmates, is the nation's largest.
The lawsuit was brought by Garrison S. Johnson, a black inmate imprisoned since 1987 for murder, robbery, and assault. He contended the policy violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection, saying he was constantly humiliated by the segregation after each of his five prison transfers.
The Bush administration backed Johnson in the case, noting America's "uniquely pernicious history" of racial discrimination in prisons that needed remedy. Most states and the federal Bureau of Prisons have not found it necessary to segregate prisoners by race, it said.
In the opinion, O'Connor argued that giving undue deference to prison officials would "make rank discrimination too easy to defend." For instance, officials could segregate visiting areas in prisons on a rationale of potential racial unrest, creating "no obvious limits to permissible segregation."
"It is not readily apparent why, if segregation in reception centers is justified, segregation in the dining halls, yards, and general housing areas is not also permissible," O'Connor wrote.
David C. Fathi, a lawyer with the ACLU's National Prison Project, called the decision an important victory for "racial fairness in this country."
"It's unfortunate the case went as far as it did," he said. "One would hope in the year 2005 that explicit segregation would not exist in this country. It was very encouraging the Supreme Court said that racial segregation was highly suspect."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in considering the case, which was heard in November while he was being treated for thyroid cancer.