Anne Gearan, AP, Yahoo! News, Mar. 1
WASHINGTON — Fifty years after the Supreme Court declared racial segregation unconstitutional in public schools, the court agreed Monday to consider whether state prisons may separate new inmates by race as a safety measure.
California routinely assigns newly arrived black prisoners to bunk only with other black prisoners for three months or more, and likewise assigns white and Asian inmates to cells with others of their race or ethnicity.
A black prison inmate challenged the practice as a violation of his constitutional right to equal treatment. Garrison S. Johnson also argued the policy flouts previous Supreme Court rulings striking down segregation in other areas.
“Intentional state racial segregation has been outlawed in this country for over half a century,” Johnson’s lawyers argued in asking the Supreme Court to hear his appeal.
Prison officials say housing inmates by race helps keep prisoners safe from racial violence, and note that wardens also look at factors such as an inmate’s age and health in deciding who rooms with whom.
Segregation is temporary, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer told the Supreme Court in a court filing, and the policy applies only to the two-person cells in which inmates are housed when they first enter the prison system or when they are transferred from one prison to another.
The rest of the prison system is not segregated, and inmates are often allowed to eventually choose their cellmates without regard to race, the state said. The California prison system, with more than 300,000 inmates, is the nation’s largest.
“The confined nature of the cells makes them potentially more dangerous than the other areas of the prison,” Lockyer wrote in asking the Supreme Court not to hear Johnson’s appeal.
Racial violence is a problem in prison areas outside inmate cells, Lockyer said.
“Administrators are concerned they would not be able to protect inmates who are confined in their cells, if they did not consider race as a factor.”
The practice dates back more than 25 years, Johnson said. Johnson is serving a sentence for murder, robbery and assault. He was segregated by race upon entering the prison system in 1987, and has been similarly segregated each time he transferred to a new prison, his lawyers said.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news — web sites) ruled against Johnson last year.
Prison officials had sound reasons to want to separate inmates by race, and did not treat one race better than another, the appeals judges said.
“The housing policy does not provide an advantage or disadvantage to any particular race, and the objective — reducing violence among inmates and against the staff — has nothing to do with race,” the appeals court said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Similar rulings followed, including a 1968 case that prohibited blanket racial segregation in state prisons. The court said, however, that in the interest of security, prison officials could take racial tensions into account on a case-by-case basis.
The high court will hear the latest case next fall, with a ruling expected by July 2005.
The case is Johnson v. California, 03-636.
Also Monday, the court agreed to hear another case testing rules for defense lawyers in death penalty cases. Joe Elton Nixon’s lawyer told the jury his client was guilty, and focused on trying to persuade jurors not to sentence Nixon to death.
Nixon was convicted in the 1984 murder of a woman he met at a Florida mall. Prosecutors said he tied the woman to trees with jumper cables and set her on fire.
The strategy did not work, and the jury sentenced Nixon to death. The Florida Supreme Court (news — web sites) ruled that the lawyer did not effectively represent Nixon, because Nixon did not explicitly agree to the strategy.
“The Florida Supreme Court failed to give any deference to trial counsel’s `strategic choices’ or to his evaluation of the risks of contesting guilt when the evidence of guilt was overwhelming,” state lawyers told justices in a filing.
The case is Florida v. Nixon, 03-931.