California is violating the federal Constitution when it punishes prison inmates after a riot based on their race, the U.S. Department of Justice said Friday.

Gangs in California prisons typically are based on race, and riots often pit members of one race against one another or involve inmates of only one race.

After the riots, officers often lock inmates in their cells based on which races were involved to prevent further violence -- whether or not those inmates were involved.

The Justice Department said in a court filing that the practice violates the 14th Amendment, which requires equal protection under the law. The opinion is not binding, but is part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit in federal court in Sacramento.

The race-based lockdown policy "is not based on any individual analysis of prisoner behavior, but rather on generalized fears of racial violence. Indeed, the policy affects hundreds of prisoners throughout the (prison) system who the state acknowledges have absolutely no gang ties or history of violence," according to the filing signed by the chiefs of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The state could adopt race-neutral alternatives, the Justice Department said, including locking up specific inmates who it suspects were involved in the fight, or locking down entire housing units where the riot occurred.



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