GARRISON S. JOHNSON, PETITIONER
CALIFORNIA et al.
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF
APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
[February 23, 2005]
Justice O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has an unwritten policy of racially
segregating prisoners in double cells in reception centers for up to 60 days each time
they enter a new correctional facility. We consider whether strict scrutiny is the proper
standard of review for an equal protection challenge to that policy.
CDC institutions house all new male inmates and all male inmates transferred from
other state facilities in reception centers for up to 60 days upon their arrival. During that
time, prison officials evaluate the inmates to determine their ultimate placement.
Double-cell assignments in the reception centers are based on a number of factors,
predominantly race. In fact, the CDC has admitted that the chances of an inmate being
assigned a cellmate of another race are “ ‘[p]retty close’ ” to zero percent. App. to Pet.
for Cert. 3a. The CDC further subdivides prisoners within each racial group. Thus,
Japanese-Americans are housed separately from Chinese-Americans, and Northern
California Hispanics are separated from Southern California Hispanics.
The CDC’s asserted rationale for this practice is that it is necessary to prevent
violence caused by racial gangs. Brief for Respondents 1—6. It cites numerous
incidents of racial violence in CDC facilities and identifies five major prison gangs in the
State: Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Black Guerilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, and
Nazi Low Riders.
., at 2. The CDC also notes that prison-gang culture is violent and
., at 3. An associate warden testified that if race were not considered in
making initial housing assignments, she is certain there would be racial conflict in the
cells and in the yard. App. 215a. Other prison officials also expressed their belief that
violence and conflict would result if prisoners were not segregated. See,
305a—306a. The CDC claims that it must therefore segregate all inmates while it
determines whether they pose a danger to others. See Brief for Respondents 29.
With the exception of the double cells in reception areas, the rest of the state prison
facilities–dining areas, yards, and cells–are fully integrated. After the initial 60-day
period, prisoners are allowed to choose their own cellmates. The CDC usually grants
inmate requests to be housed together, unless there are security reasons for denying
Garrison Johnson is an African-American inmate in the custody of the CDC. He has
been incarcerated since 1987 and, during that time, has been housed at a number of
California prison facilities. Fourth Amended Complaint 3, Record, Doc. No. 78. Upon
his arrival at Folsom prison in 1987, and each time he was transferred to a new facility
thereafter, Johnson was double-celled with another African-American inmate. See