Saturday, November 6, 2004
Last Tuesday, the US Supreme Court began considering a California prison policy that calls for segregating all inmates by race for 60 days when they first arrive in the system or are transferred to a new prison once in the system. The 9th Circuit upheld the policy as necessary to prevent gang-related violence in the prison system. At oral argument in Johnson v. California, Justice John Paul Stevens questioned this rationale, asking whether the policy may even have the reverse effect of increasing gang-violence by facilitating close contact among inmates of the same race, perhaps establishing new gang relationships that previously didn't exist.
Garrison S. Johnson, the inmate who brought the lawsuit, is an African American man who chose not to join a prison gang, and he has no record of ever being involved in interracial violence. Mr. Johnson was imprisoned in 1987 and has been transferred five times, thus enduring six periods of segregation. Consequently, he argues, he has never been able to seek support across racial lines.
The Bush administration entered the case on Mr. Johnson's behalf to argue that segregation by race should always be regarded as presumptively unconstitutional and subject to "strict scrutiny" such that a policy will be upheld only if it's narrowly tailored to achieve a "compelling" government interest. This is the position, of course, that Johnson's lawyer is arguing as well.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in upholding the segregation, had applied the more deferential standard that the Supreme Court has developed for evaluating choices made by prison administrators.
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