The petitioner challenged the California Department of Corrections’ practice of racially segregating prisoners in double cells in reception centers for up to 60 days each time they enter a new correctional facility.
All racial classifications must be shown to be necessary to the accomplishment of some permissible state objective, independent of the racial discrimination which it was the object of the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate.
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has an unwritten policy of racially segregating prisoners in double cells in reception centers for up to 60 days each time they enter a new correctional facility. The CDC’s asserted rationale for this practice is that it is necessary to prevent violence caused by racial gangs. It cites numerous incidents of racial violence in CDC facilities and in other major prisons in the State. The CDC also notes that prison-gang culture is violent and murderous. With the exception of the double cells in the reception areas, the rest of the state prison facilities-dining areas, yards, and cells are fully integrated. After the initial 60-day period, prisoners are allowed to choose their own cellmates.
Is the California Department of Corrections’s practice of racially segregating prisoners in double cells in reception centers for up to 60 days each time they enter a new correctional facility subject to strict scrutiny?
Yes, the need for strict scrutiny is important here, where prison officials cite racial violence as the reason for their policy. Racial classifications threaten to stigmatize individuals by reason of their membership in a racial group and to incite racial hostility. By insisting that inmates be housed only with other inmates of the same race, it is possible that prison officials will breed further hostility among prisoners and reinforce racial and ethnic divisions.
Virtually all other States and the Federal Government manage their prison systems without reliance on racial segregation. As to transferees, whom the CDC has already evaluated at least once, it is not clear why more individualized determinations are not possible. While the CDC protests that strict scrutiny will handcuff prison administrators and render them unable to address legitimate problems of race-based violence in prisons. Not so. Strict scrutiny is not strict in theory, but fatal in fact. Strict scrutiny does not preclude the ability of prison officials to address the compelling interest in prison safety. Prison administrators, however, will have to demonstrate that its policy is narrowly tailored with regard to new inmates as well as transferees. Yet, prisons are dangerous places, and the special circumstances they present may justify racial classifications in some contexts.