A federal judge told the courtroom earlier this month that she would consider whether to accept an agreement between the attorneys for an Arizona prison inmate and the State of Arizona to end racial segregation in Arizona’s prisons. While the state denies that it has a policy of racial segregation in the prisons, Arizona is one of the only states in the country in which race is used as a factor in determining prison housing assignments.

The lawsuit, which was brought by a single inmate, asserts that the state, through the Department of Corrections, is violating the constitution by imposing race-based housing and work assignment in its prisons.

The state appears to be taking an interesting position in the case. On the one hand, they are claiming that racial segregation doesn’t exist, or at least if it does, it is limited to 15% of prison beds. On the other hand, prison officials argue that racially-based prison assignments are important in keeping the peace among the inmates. This is particularly important, they argue, in the case of inmates who are members of race-based gangs.

The proposed settlement now being considered by the judge would involve integration over time, beginning this year, and being completed by 2021. The settlement also calls for tracking the progress of the changes.

Arizona is not the only state which has dealt recently with race-based prison housing issues. A year and a half ago in California, a federal judge granted class action status to inmates who sued claiming race-based punishment violated their constitutional rights. Several months later, the case was settled, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreeing to end race-based lockdowns in state prisons. For some time prior to the settlement, prison officials maintained that they were locking down and/or issuing punishments based upon race as a means of controlling violence.

In Arizona, the proposal must still be approved by the judge, who, according to some reported statements from the bench, has questioned whether a change of this magnitude should be instituted based upon a lawsuit by a single inmate. On the other hand, if the issue is a constitutional one, we’re not sure why the number of plaintiffs should have an impact on the result.

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