Californa’s policy of temporarily segregating new and newly transferred inmates by race was debated at the Supreme Court yesterday, the New York Times reports. The case pits the justices’ tradition of deferring to prison administrators against their dislike of practices that classify people by race. “California is ground zero for race-based street gangs,” Frances T. Grunder, a senior assistant state attorney general, told the court. “The animosity between the gangs is purely race-based, and the racial pressures in prison are very, very severe.”
Garrison S. Johnson, the inmate who brought the lawsuit, is a black man who chose not to join a prison gang. “There is no record that he has ever been involved in interracial violence,” Bert Deixler, his attorney, told the court. In prison since 1987, Johnson has been transferred five times, meaning he has encountered six periods of segregation. “He is in peril, unable to reach out across racial lines for support,” Deixler said. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, under treatment for thyroid cancer, was not present, but Justice John Paul Stevens said the chief justice would take part in deciding the case.