Inmate Has a Case Over Race-Based Shower Rules

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The 9th Circuit revived claims Thursday that a California prison’s race-based shower restrictions violated one inmate’s equal-protection rights.
     Corcoran prison enacted the restrictions at issue – requiring all inmates to wear only minimal clothing to the showers, and to be handcuffed on their way there – after multiple incidents of gang-related violence in 2004 prompted a lockdown on black inmates.
     Eventually, the shower restrictions were lifted for all inmates except black inmates and members of a disruptive group of Northern Hispanic inmates, according to the ruling.
     Garrick Harrington, a black inmate who maintains that he was not involved in the violent incidents that led to the lockdown, filed suit after he slipped in a puddle outside the shower and injured his back.
     He claimed that he had previously sought permission to wear boots to the shower instead of the “flimsy” shower slippers but that a correctional officer denied his request.
     The inmate’s complaint alleged deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment and race discrimination in violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
     A jury in Sacramento found against him on both claims, but the 9th Circuit reversed in part on Thursday, finding that Harrington’s equal-protection claim has merit.
     Noting the “longstanding” principle protecting prisoners from race discrimination, a divided three-judge appellate panel said the Supreme Court was “unequivocal” that strict scrutiny is the proper standard of review for an equal-protection challenge to race-based policy.
     With this in mind, the court zeroed in on how Harrington’s jury was instructed on balancing “these principles when race classifications collide with security concerns.”
     “The jury was told that the race-based action could be justified if it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest,” Judge Margaret McKeown wrote for the majority. “So far, so good.”
     By having its instruction on deference to prison officials “specifically pegged to the race claim,” however, McKeown said the trial court “basically pulled the rug out from under the narrow tailoring requirement.”
     “We conclude that the court erred when it instructed the jury that the prison’s obligations under the Eighth Amendment compete with its obligations under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the 23-page opinion states.
     “The court also erred by allowing the jury to defer generally to officials when considering Harrington’s equal protection claim, rather than asserting whether the challenged race-based actions were narrowly tailored.”
     In finding that the jury’s instructions “cannot be harmonized,” McKeown noted that “the deference instruction circles back to whether the prison discriminated against Harrington because of his race.”
     Because the court’s instructions skewed how the jury viewed the verdict form, the 9th Circuit remanded the equal protection issue for further proceedings.
     The ruling otherwise affirmed rejection of Harrington’s Eighth Amendment claims, leading Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain to dissent only as to the revived count.
     He said “the relevant jury instruction appropriately incorporated deference to prison officials’ unique expertise,” and that the majority’s conclusion “rests on the premise that deference to state officials is necessarily incompatible with strict scrutiny analysis.”
     For O’Scannlain, the instruction’s reference to “competing obligations” “simply reflects the reality that prison officials are forced to balance conflicting considerations – such as individual prisoner safety and the safety and security of the prison as a whole – when crafting prison policies.”
     “The Supreme Court has made clear that strict scrutiny and deference to state officials are by no means incompatible, even in the equal protection context,” he said.
     O’Scannlain said he would affirm the jury’s equal protection verdict and the judgment as a whole.

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