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California inmates win class-action status in racial bias suit

By Jennifer Baires

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A ruling that granted class-action status to a lawsuit accusing California prison officials of racial discrimination for keeping inmates of the same ethnicity in cells during lockdowns brings all state prisoners into the suit, an attorney said on Thursday.

The ruling on Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley marks the first time in the state a suit of this kind has been cleared for class-action status, and it covers all 125,000 of the state's inmates, said Don Specter, a lawyer with the Prison Law Office who is representing the plaintiffs.

Robert Mitchel, an African American and the lead plaintiff in the case, filed a complaint in 2008 alleging he was repeatedly confined to his cell in High Desert State Prison, a facility in the northeast part of the state, after incidents involving other prisoners of the same race.

“They're confined to their cells for 24 hours a day, for months and sometimes years at a time,” Specter said. “And often they have had nothing whatsoever to do with the events that precipitated the lockdowns."

Lawyers for the inmates argue these lockdowns violate inmates' constitutional rights under clauses of the U.S. Constitution that ensure equal protection and prohibit cruel and unusual punishment.

Prison officials say gang affiliation, which often falls along racial lines, is the reason many inmates of the same race are held at the same time in lockdown.

“It’s no secret that gangs are aligned along racial lines," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “That’s been the case for decades.”

Thornton confirmed the judge's ruling but said she could not comment specifically on the finding because prison officials are still analyzing it.

But she did say that as recently as May the department further refined prison policies to “make them as race-neutral as possible.”

In a similar lawsuit filed in 2012, attorneys for California prison inmates contend the state's practice of keeping prisoners in near-solitary confinement for years is unconstitutional. At a hearing last month, that suit moved forward as a judge scheduled a trial to begin in December.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Eric Walsh)