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Weir challenges racial lockdowns

Judge Robert Weir recently issued a ruling in a suit over lockdowns at Pelican Bay State Prison. Weir decided racially motivated detentions are unconstitutional and must be stopped. The state Department of Corrections will appeal the case. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
Judge Robert Weir recently issued a ruling in a suit over lockdowns at Pelican Bay State Prison. Weir decided racially motivated detentions are unconstitutional and must be stopped. The state Department of Corrections will appeal the case. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

California's prison system promotes a ‘culture of separation' and an ‘ethnic discrimination' that must be remedied, according to a ruling in Del Norte County's Superior Court.

The ruling, made by Judge Robert Weir, Dec. 10, is the conclusion to a civil suit brought by inmate Aaron Escalera that he was unfairly ‘locked down' as a result of the Pelican Bay State Prison riot of February 2000.

In the suit, Escalera vs. Terhune and McGrath, Escalera is identified as a Pelican Bay inmate who did not participate in the riot but was still segregated, and therefore punished, as a result of it.

"Needless to say, we are going to appeal it," said spokesman Russ Heimrich of the California Department of Corrections. "We also have a great deal of case law supporting the way in which we manage prison populations."

Weir, who said yesterday he could not comment on the ruling, agreed in his written opinion with three arguments presented by Escalera and his attorney George Mavris.

Answering the first argument, that the California Department of Corrections and Pelican Bay have a policy of segregating inmates, Weir concluded such a policy exists. "... And although such a policy is constitutionally permissible on a short-term basis, respondents have exceeded the time that may reasonably be considered a short-term emergency."

This finding is based on inmates still being ‘locked-down' at the prison's Security Housing Unit as a result of the 2000 riot. That uprising, which involved a large group of Hispanic inmates attacking a smaller group of black inmates in the B yard of the prison, included 200 inmates, 16 injuries and one death.

"Pelican Bay is 60 percent off lockdown now, I believe," said Heimrich. "It's very expensive and draining of resources to support a lockdown so we have no reason to extend them past what is necessary."

Weir also concluded that the lock-down of Southern California Hispanic inmates as a result of the riot at Pelican Bay was preferential.

"Respondents did lock down all Facility A Southern Hispanic inmates at PBSP, from May 10 to June 20, 2000, and such action was constitutionally impermissible because it was preferential on the basis of ethnicity," said Weir.

Heimrich said there is no other way for the department to manage riots that are organized by prison gangs.

"The sad fact is gangs are divided by race and we have no control over that," Heimrich said. "It's very dangerous. And not to manage these incidents based on that fact is dangerous."

Charles Carbone, director of litigation at California Prison Focus, said his organization favors Weir's ruling but admits race is a sensitive subject for prisons.

"Prisons are the most racially charged environments on the face of the earth," said Carbone. "Still, locking down an entire race for the actions of some is a policy that is both lazy and racist."

Carbone said the Department of Corrections must appeal Weir's ruling about the lockdown at Pelican Bay because it will affect the department's overall housing policy throughout the state.

Weir's final conclusion is that the Department of Corrections' policies were actually contributing to racial tensions among inmates.

"(The) policies governing race relations resulted in a culture of separation, which contributed to inter-racial violence, creating a situation where it became necessary to impose segregation to stop the violence," said Weir.

"There are a variety of factors that should be used in housing assignments instead of race," Carbone said in favor of the ruling.

Weir ordered the prison to refrain from further preferential treatment based on ethnicity, to determine which inmates should be released from lockdown, and to complete a plan to improve racial relations by March 10.

"I believe the ruling has the potential of affecting several hundred members of (this) community, as they are employed by PBSP, and have the task of running the lockdown in question," said Escalera in a letter to The Daily Triplicate last week.

 


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