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Court to review segregated cells

By Associated Press
Published March 2, 2004

WASHINGTON - Fifty years after the Supreme Court declared racial segregation unconstitutional in public schools, the court agreed Monday to consider whether state prisons may separate new inmates by race as a safety measure.

California routinely assigns newly arrived black prisoners to bunk only with other black prisoners for three months or more, and likewise assigns white and Asian inmates to cells with others of their race or ethnicity.

A black prison inmate challenged the practice as a violation of his constitutional right to equal treatment. Garrison S. Johnson also argued the policy flouts previous Supreme Court rulings striking down segregation in other areas.

"Intentional state racial segregation has been outlawed in this country for over half a century," Johnson's lawyers argued in asking the Supreme Court to hear his appeal.

Prison officials say housing inmates by race helps keep prisoners safe from racial violence, and note that wardens also look at factors such as an inmate's age and health in deciding who rooms with whom.

Segregation is temporary, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer told the Supreme Court in a court filing, and the policy applies only to the two-person cells in which inmates are housed when they first enter the prison system or when they are transferred from one prison to another.

During this period, inmates are assigned to two-person cells according to whether they are black, white, Asian or "other." Within those categories, prison authorities also separate certain groups by national or geographic origin. For example, they do not house Japanese and Chinese inmates together, or Laotians with Vietnamese, or Latinos from Northern and Southern California.

The rest of the prison system is not segregated, and inmates are often allowed to eventually choose their cellmates without regard to race, the state said. The California prison system, with more than 300,000 inmates, is the nation's largest.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Johnson last year.

Prison officials had sound reasons to want to separate inmates by race, and did not treat one race better than another, the appeals judges said.

The high court will hear the latest case next fall, with a ruling expected by July 2005.

The case is Johnson vs. California.

Also Monday ...

SCALIA & CHENEY: The court declined to act on the Sierra Club's motion to disqualify Justice Antonin Scalia from taking part in a case challenging Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to disclose information about his energy task force. The justice and the vice president took a hunting trip together in January, after the court had accepted the case.

MUSLIM CHARITY: The court refused to reinstate a suit challenging the Bush administration's decision to freeze assets of a Muslim charity accused of financing the Islamic terror group Hamas. The court did not comment in rejecting an appeal from the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a Texas group shut down in 2001. A federal appeals court ruled last year that the Treasury Department had ample evidence linking Holy Land to terrorism.

- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified March 2, 2004, 01:44:59]

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