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California prisons no longer lock down inmates based on race, but there's a catch

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It might sound outrageous if you're unfamiliar with prison life, but California prison officials once  used race to determine which inmates would be placed on lockdown when things got out of hand.

Now, thanks to a proposed settlement in a civil rights lawsuit, the days of confining all white, black, or Hispanic prisoners to their cells after violent incidents are officially over in the state's prisons.

Attorneys for the inmates said these policies — used by prison officials to immobilize large numbers of prisoners while they investigated riots and other violent incidents, often involving race-based gangs — violated inmates' constitutional rights.

In the proposed settlement, which was published by the Los Angeles Times, prison officials agree to stop considering skin color when deciding which men have to stay in their cells. Instead, they'll weigh other things — like a prisoner's behavior, or his gang affiliation — in what's called an "individualized threat assessment."

Under the new rules in the settlement, race and ethnicity can't play any role in these decisions.  While the settlement must still be approved by a judge, California Department of Corrections officials say the policy changes it reflects were put into place in May, and have already taken effect That sounds like great news for fair treatment of  inmates. But there may be a catch.

According to 2012 reporting by Mother Jones' Shane Bauer on conditions at California's Pelican Bay State Prison, the determination of gang affiliation can be based on pretty sketchy evidence — evidence that has a lot to do with race.  Apparently, the simple possession of piece of literature by a black author can be enough for authorities to conclude that a prisoner belongs to the Black Guerilla Family ("BGF") gang.

California officials frequently cite possession of black literature, left-wing materials, and writing about prisoner rights as evidence of gang affiliation. In the dozens of cases I reviewed, gang investigators have used the term "[BGF] training material" to refer to publications by California Prison Focus, a group that advocates the abolition of the SHUs; Jackson's once best-selling Soledad Brother; a pamphlet said to reference "Revolutionary Black Nationalism, The Black Internationalist Party, Marx, and Lenin"; and a pamphlet titled "The Black People's Prison Survival Guide." This last one advises inmates to read books, keep a dictionary handy, practice yoga, avoid watching too much television, and stay away from "leaders of gangs."

The list goes on. Other materials considered evidence of gang involvement have included writings by Mumia Abu-JamalThe Black Panther Party: Reconsidered, a collection of academic essays by University of Cincinnati professor Charles Jones; pictures of Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Nat Turner; and virtually anything using the term "New Afrikan." At least one validation besides Pennington's referenced handwritten pages of "Afro centric ideology."

So what was once a race-based lockdown decision, can now be gang-based lockdown decision — but there's reason to believe that any assessment of who's in what gang boils down to a race-based decision, too.

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