SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Releasing a lifer from a gang housing unit ignored evidence that he remained "the No. 1 man" in a prison's Aryan Brotherhood, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
California prison officials validated Robert Lee Griffin as a leader of the white supremacist prison gang in 1979, nine years after he was originally imprisoned for robbery and burglary. Because of the Aryan Brotherhood's "blood in, blood out" mantra, Griffin has spent years in a security housing unit, or SHU, to protect other inmates from him and his underlings.
Griffin first sought release from the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison in 1992 on grounds that the conditions - 22 hours per day in a windowless cell, little to no interaction with other inmates, and closely supervised library time and visitation - constituted cruel and unusual punishment. He joined an unsuccessful federal class action of inmates claiming the same thing in 1995's Madrid v. Gomez.
Despite a ruling in Madrid that SHUs did not general violate the Eighth Amendment, U.S. District Judge James Ware found in 2006 that Griffin's confinement at Pelican Bay was cruel and unusual.
The judge said prison officials failed to present evidence that Griffin remained active in the Aryan Brotherhood and never afforded him the opportunity show that he had "retired."
Ware ordered Griffin's immediate release from the Pelican Bay SHU. By then, however, Griffin had been convicted of violating federal anti-racketeering law related to his Aryan Brotherhood leadership.
Griffin returned to Pelican Bay in 2007 after spending five years in prison to serve out the life sentence on the RICO charges. He was placed in an administrative segregation unit while officials investigated his gang affiliation.
The next year, Griffin filed to enforce Ware's 2006 order releasing him from the SHU. Ware held in 2009 that Griffin's confinement in administrative segregation unit was more restrictive than an SHU and ordered him released into the general prison population.
But before that order came down, prison officials moved Griffin to Corcoran State Prison near Fresno. Meanwhile, the state petitioned Ware for relief from his order based on evidence that Griffin remained active in the gang - including a "kill order" he issued while in federal custody and testimony from a confidential informant that Corcoran inmates were already calling him "the No. 1 man" in the Aryan Brotherhood there.
Prison officials also told Ware that he belonged at the more restrictive Pelican Bay SHU, since the Corcoran unit allowed frequent contact with other inmates. They argued that Griffin's imprisonment at Corcoran or release into the general population would let him continue issuing kill orders for other inmates and their family members.
Rather than addressing the new evidence or the fears of the Corrections Department, Ware declined to review his 2006 order. He held in 2011 that, while the Corcoran SHU was less restrictive than Pelican Bay, Griffin merited an immediate transfer to the general population or other accommodations that were less confining.
After the 9th Circuit stayed that order pending appeal, a divided three-judge panel vacated it Tuesday.
The 27-page majority opinion opens with Judge Andrew Kleinfeld calling the case a procedural mess and slamming Ware for ignoring Griffin's RICO conviction - which included murders and kill orders.