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Wednesday, April 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Racial Segregation in Arizona Prisons Ended

TUCSON (CN) - An inmate's lawsuit has ended racial segregation in Arizona prisons, where until an historic ruling Monday prisoners were housed and assigned jobs based on race, and barbers had to use separate tools to cut the hair of black, Latino and Native American inmates.

Stephen L. Rudisill sued Arizona and its Department of Corrections in September 2013 from the state prison complex in Tucson, claiming the state's longtime practice of housing and employing inmates based on race violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Rudisill, who began serving 13 years and six months for aggravated assault in 2007, hand-wrote his initial lawsuit and filed it pro se in Federal Court. While most such complaints don't make it very far, this one caught the attention of Los Angeles attorney Bert Deixler. Deixler, with Kendall Brill & Kelly, had argued the landmark 2005 case Johnson v. California, which led to the desegregation of California's prison system.

On Monday, after protracted negotiations between the state and Deixler's team, U.S. District Judge Cindy Jorgenson approved a series of stipulations and ordered the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to begin implementing an "Integrated Housing Program."

Deixler told Courthouse News on Monday that he often receives letters from prisoners asking for legal assistance because of his involvement in Johnson v. California.

"Almost always I say no," he said in an email. "Mr. Rudisill wrote me and his fact pattern seemed disturbingly similar to the one in Johnson, with the added feature of racial quotas for employment and race denoted barber tools."

According to the amended complaint: "Inmates who are employed as barbers must use separate barber tools, which are in separate boxes, numbered 1 through 6. Caucasian barbers must use boxes numbered 2 and 4; Latino barbers must use boxes number 1 and 3; African-American barbers must use the box numbered 5; and Native American Barber must use the Box numbered 6."

Jobs in Arizona prisons were assigned "according to racial quotas established by the prison officials," the complaint states, including helpers employed to assist disabled inmates.

Deixler said he flew to the Tucson prison to look around and soon "decided [Rudisill] was worth representing."

"Our partners supported our desire to take on this case as a pro bono matter and [fellow attorney] Randall [Jackson] led us through endless negotiating and drafting of the stipulation that was today approved by the district judge in Arizona, with the attendant impact upon 35,000 prisoners," Deixler said.

Under the program, which the department has until 2021 to fully implement, inmates in Arizona will no longer be assigned cells or jobs based on race or national origin, unless integrating a particular inmate is determined to be a security risk.

"Any consideration of race in housing assignments shall be permitted only when narrowly tailored to address a compelling state interest, and even then may be evaluated only as one factor in connection with a comprehensive and objective assessment of any inmate's individual circumstances," according to the stipulations. "As a result, an inmate's race shall not be used as a primary determining factor for housing assignments."

To prepare for integration, inmates who have been housed in race-based units will be required to complete classes on "cultural diversity, socialization skills, and decision-making skills."

The ADC must also "institute incentives for inmate compliance in units at the time of implementation," including offering MP3 players, games and added visitation and recreation privileges, according to the stipulations.

The program will be monitored by paid experts and the court through 2023.

"The department will work with diligence and good faith in a measured, methodical, and prudently cautious manner over the next 5½ years as set forth in the court's order," ADC spokesman Andrew Wilder said in an email. "Our primary concern will remain the safety of uniformed and non-uniformed staff, the public, and the inmates, and the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the state prison system."

Wilder said the department of prisons does not anticipate having to hire additional staff or build new prisons to comply with the order.

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