AP file photo/Rich PedroncelliA practice in California jails of segregating inmates based on race to prevent further violence following riots will end.

AP file photo/Rich PedroncelliA practice in California jails of segregating inmates based on race to prevent further violence following riots will end.

California prisons agree to end race policy

SACRAMENTO — California officials agreed Wednesday to end a policy in which it segregated prison inmates after riots based on their race as a way to prevent further violence.

Officers have frequently locked inmates in their cells based on which races were involved in the riot, even if individual inmates of that race were not directly implicated.

The agreement to end the practice is spelled out in a 21-page settlement involving a lawsuit first filed in 2008. The agreement says future lockdowns may not be imposed or lifted based on race or ethnicity.

Instead, officers can lock down every inmate in an affected area, or individual inmates suspected of being involved in the incident or the gangs that were involved.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also agreed to provide inmates with opportunities for outdoor exercise any time a lockdown lasts longer than 14 days.

The agreement with attorneys representing inmates came after the U.S. Justice Department said in a non-binding court filing last year that the old policy violated the 14th Amendment that requires equal protection under the law.

Justice officials said that policy was based on generalized fears of racial violence and affected inmates who have no gang ties or history of violence.

State officials did not acknowledge any violation of inmates' constitutional rights as part of the agreement.

“We see this as a tremendous result,” Rebekah Evenson, an attorney with the nonprofit Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, said in an email.

She previously said no other state has a similar lockdown policy. California prison officials impose more than 600 lockdowns in a typical year, with at least 200 based on the race of the inmates, she said.

The class-action settlement has not been filed with the federal court in Sacramento, nor has a federal judge agreed to its terms. A copy of the settlement was obtained by The Associated Press.

Department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said state officials are pleased with the agreement and optimistic that the judge will approve it. She said in an email that the department has been working on changes to its policy for two years and began implementing those new policies in May.

The lawsuit was filed eight years ago by inmate Robert Mitchell after he was locked in his cell following a fight at High Desert State Prison in Susanville.

The policy is similar to an earlier California practice of segregating inmates by race in their cells and sleeping areas to prevent gang violence. The U.S. Supreme Court found that policy to be discriminatory a decade ago.

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