(CN) - Administrators at Pelican Bay State Prison cannot enforce race-based lockdowns, a California appeals court panel ruled, noting that the practice contradicts 10-year-old precedent.
Pelican Bay is home to California's most serious criminal offenders. Gang warfare within its walls has given the super-maximum security facility a reputation of being one of the most notoriously violent prisons in America.
Overpopulation further complicates matters. Pelican Bay was designed to accommodate 2,280 prisoners, but state data shows that its current population tops 3,461.
A 2009 manual published by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation states that there are seven designated prison gangs, all formed along racial lines.
To control the violence among the general population, Pelican Bay assigns inmates to one of five racial or ethnic groups: White, Black, Northern Hispanic, Southern Hispanic or Other, a group consisting mostly of Asians.
All cellmates share the same group designation and are thus segregated by race. Their cells are marked by color-coded signs: white for White, yellow for Other, blue for Black, red for Southern Hispanic and green for Northern Hispanic.
Southern Hispanics had balked when they were left with the harshest punishment after a 2000 conflict that led the prison to impose a full lockdown on the entire population and then easing restrictions on all other groups.
Judge Robert Weir of Del Norte County Superior Court deemed race-based lockdowns unconstitutional in 2003, ruling on consolidated habeas petitions brought by Aaron Escalera and other inmates.
California's First Appellate District affirmed the following year in an unpublished decision, but reform at the prison was short-lived.
Jose Morales, who is serving life for first-degree murder, petitioned for habeas relief in early 2010 after just over a year in the Southern Hispanic group at Pelican Bay.
He said prison officials placed him because of his prior Southern California residency, unfairly punishing him for a fight that occurred before his arrival.
The lockdown of the Southern Hispanics cost Morales privileges like yard recreation, visits, phone calls and other activities.
Judge Weir also decided Morales' petition and found Pelican Bay's system improper under Escalera v. Terhune. He ordered the prison to end its race-based group designation within 60 days.
Unable to stay the order pending appeal, Pelican Bay immediately ended its modified program of partial lockdowns. A prison official reported in April 2012 that there had not been violence requiring a lockdown or partial lockdown since the order.
Division Three of the state's First Appellate District shot down the warden's appeal last week.
The decision notes the trial court's finding that Pelican Bay can handle gang violence without resorting to long-term, mass deprivation of outside exercise, work assignments, family visits and religious services.
One former warden, for example, experienced success using a system of evaluation based on the threat-assessment scores of individual inmates.
Punishing inmates by denying all visitation and enforcing other restrictions also "appear primarily punitive in nature, rather than designed to maintain security, especially when imposed on a large group of inmates for an extended period of time," Justice Stuart Pollak wrote for a three-member panel.
The court also upheld Judge Weir's decision to let inmates enforce this order rather than multiplying litigation by filing duplicative habeas petitions, as Morales had been forced to file.
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