Denny Walsh at the Sacramento Bee reported recently on a federal court case in California, where prisoners were placed in solitary based entirely on their race.  When a couple of African American inmates assaulted staff, the prison decided that more than 100 others should be placed in lockdown because they, too, happened to be black.

The case raises the broader question of what role race plays in decisions to place (and keep) inmates in solitary. In recent decades, the increasingly successful attacks on the death penalty have emphasized the persistence of racial discrimination in how capital punishment is meted out. (See, for example, The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides and other statistics on race from the Death Penalty Information Center). As far as we are aware, no similar research has yet been done on solitary confinement.

An appeals panel on Tuesday reinstated a federal civil rights lawsuit in Sacramento, ruling that a series of lockdowns primarily targeting African American inmates at a Susanville prison amounted to racial discrimination.

The lockdowns in 2002 and 2003 at High Desert State Prison followed assaults on prison staff carried out or planned by one or two black inmates. Correctional officials at the prison “apparently believe that, without showing any linkage between the perpetrators and the prisoners subjected to the lockdown, it was enough to assume that race alone tied (them) together. … An assumption of this kind is grounded on race,” a three-judge panel of the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a sharply worded opinion.

The corrections officials who ran the prison offered no evidence to disprove the racial discrimination claim of inmate DeWayne McGee Richardson, the panel noted in its published opinion. The judges said the officials had no explanation why all blacks were regarded as security risks “when one or a few African American inmates are responsible for an assault.”

At oral arguments in February, an incredulous and relentless Circuit Judge Marsha S. Berzon repeatedly demanded that Deputy Attorney General John Riches II explain the actions of the prison officials. She noted that his clients had taken the position that “we locked down black people because they were black.”

“Yes, because the blacks were the ones … creating the security risk,” Riches replied.

“That, I mean, that is just a flatly racist statement,” Berzon retorted.

“Of course it is,” Riches said. “This was a race-based security decision.”

In a 2002 incident described in Riches’ appellate brief, the prison was locked down based on information that inmates were plotting assaults on staff. An investigation indicated the prison gang Black Guerilla Family was planning the violence, and 100 inmates…thought to have a connection with the group, no matter how tangential, were placed in administrative segregation, the brief said. Officials soon determined the report “was fabricated by a correctional officer,” the brief said.

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