When a group of prisoners attacked two guards at California's High Desert State Prison in 2006, the warden declared a full lockdown that confined African Americans in one wing of the prison to their cells, and kept them there for 14 months.
No outdoor exercise. No rehabilitation programs or prison jobs.
This week, California agreed to give up its unique use of race-based punishment as a tool to control violence in its crowded prisons. Corrections chief Jeffrey Beard and lawyers for inmates have settled a six-year-long civil rights lawsuit, filed in 2008, over the High Desert lockdown.
The case was eventually widened to cover all prisoners and lockdown practices that had become common statewide. The agreement now goes to a federal judge for expected approval.
"We see this as a tremendous result," said Rebekah Evenson, a staff lawyer at the Prison Law Office, which pressed the class-action litigation.
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The U.S. Justice Department had joined sides with inmates' lawyers in the case, intervening a year ago and stating that California's racial lockdowns were inconsistent with federal practices, ineffective and based on "generalized fears of racial violence."
U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley made it clear he considered the state's defense thin. In awarding prisoners class-action status in July, Nunley said it was "undisputed" that California had statewide lockdown policies based on race.