Can prisons routinely segregate prisoners by race? The Supreme Court will consider that issue tomorrow, Newsweek reports. In California, for the first 60 days of a prison assignment, prisoners are assigned cellmates of the same race. Japanese and Chinese inmates are not housed together, nor are Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Filipinos. Hispanics from northern California and Hispanics from southern California are not housed together. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit approved California's segregation policy. It concluded that prison conditions require giving broad discretion on policy to prison officials, even on matters involving race.
California says its initial cellmate segregation is necessary to reduce violence and maintain order in its racially tense, gang-ridden prisons. The state emphasizes that all prisoners receive the same food and conditions even though they are segregated in their cellmate assignments. An inmate's attorneys reply that a half century of Supreme Court jurisprudence establishes the bedrock notion that state-ordered segregation is impermissible. They argue that the Supreme Court's decisions on race reflect a deep aversion to routine segregation in public facilities and that this fundamental principle applies within prison walls. The case pits two strong lines of Supreme Court cases against one another. On matters of race, the high court repeatedly has emphasized that explicit use of race must be strictly justified and limited. In another line of cases, the court has stressed the deference owed to prison administrators and the different standards applicable to constitutional claims in a prison context.