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Racial segregation in prison may be curbed

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that racial segregation of prison inmates, in their cells and elsewhere in prison operations, is a form of racial classification that must be judged by a rigorous constitutional standard: strict scrutiny. The Court did not decide, however, whether the California prison policy specifically at issue failed to satisfy that standard; it left that question for review in lower courts.

The vote was 5-3, with Chief Justice Rehnquist not participating. The decision, announced in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, was the only opinion of the day. Justice John Paul Stevens presided in the Chief Justice’s absence.

Justice Stevens dissented from the prison decision, arguing that the Court should have gone ahead now and struck down the policy of routinely segregation all new or transferred prison inmates in their cell assignments for the initial 60 days. Justice Clarence Thomas, in a separate dissent joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, argued that the Court should have deferred to prison officials’ discretion in managing their inmate populations. “The Constitution has always demanded less within the prison walls,” Thomas wrote.

The only segregation directly at issue in the case was the assignment of inmates to cells by race, upon arrival at a prison. But language in the opinion made it clear that it would probably apply to any form of racial classification in the prison context. “It is not readily apparent,” the majority said, “why, if segregation in reception centers is justified, segregation in the dining halls, yards, and general housing areas is not also permissible.”

The Court noted that the federal prison system and “virtually all other states” are managed “without reliance on racial segregation.”

Three of the five Justices who were part of the majority in the case said in a separate opinion that they accepted the strict scrutiny standard when racial segregation in prison was at issue, but would not necessarily apply that standard to other forms of racial classification if they were designed “to hasten the day when entrenched discrimination and its after-effects” have been wiped out — a suggestion that they would be more tolerant of the use of race to support “affirmative action.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that separate opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter. Their votes, however, supported the O’Connor approach to the California prison case.

O’Connor’s opinion for the majority relied in part upon a 1968 decision, in Lee v. Washington, in which a divided Court upheld a lower court ruling sriking down a racial segregation policy in Alabama prisons. “We did not relax the standard of review for racial classifications in prison in Lee, and we refuse to do so today,” O’Connor said.

“By perpetuating the notion that race matters, racial segregation of inmates may exacerbate the very patterns of violence that it is said to counteract,” the majority said. “In the prison context, when the government’s power is at its apex, we think that searching judicial review of racial classifications is necessary to guard against invidious discrimination.”

O’Connor said that the strict scrutiny standard “does not preclude the ability of prison officials to address the compelling interest in prison safety. Prison administrators, however, will have to demonstrate that any race-based policies are narrowly tailored to that end.” She remarked that “prisons are dangerous places, and the special circumstances they present may justify racial classifications in some contexts.”

The Court reversed a Ninth Circuit decision allowing the cell segregation policy, deferring to prison officials’ discretion under the authority of the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Turner v. Safley. The Court noted that “we have never applied Turner to racial classifications. Turner itself did not involve any racial classification, and it cast no doubt on Lee.”

Wednesday’s ruling came in the case of Johnson v. California (docket 03-636).