Crime - Sacto 911

Suit charges California prison program discriminates against men

A California prisons program meant to expedite the reunification of inmates with their families – but which excludes male prisoners – is being challenged in federal court as discriminatory and short-sighted.

Lawyers for inmates are seeking a preliminary injunction to force prison officials to include men in the program.

An inmate enrolled in the Alternative Custody Program receives a day off her sentence for each day she participates. The inmate is released from prison and allowed to live in a residential home, transitional care facility, or residential drug treatment program for the remainder of her sentence. She is regularly checked on by a parole agent and subject to electronic monitoring. Each inmate has an individualized treatment and rehabilitation plan. Serious or violent offenders are not eligible.

As originally enacted by the Legislature in 2010, the program was open to all female prisoners, but only to male prisoners who were “primary caregivers” of dependent children.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offered the program only to females. Two years later, the Legislature amended the statute to expressly exclude men, and that became permanent on Feb. 25, 2013.

The exclusion violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, the inmates’ lawyers claim in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Sacramento federal court. The clause requires that all persons in similar situations be treated alike.

“CDCR’s implementing regulations contain 16 mandatory and another six discretionary exclusionary criteria to insure that only low-risk, low-level offenders participate in the ACP,” the motion for a preliminary injunction says. “Each of these exclusionary criteria is sex-neutral and focused solely on the prisoner’s risk level.

“Nothing in the statute or implementing regulations purports to justify this blatant and illegal discrimination. Sex-based distinctions that hinge on assumptions about women’s roles as caregivers cannot stand.”

Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the only immediate comment from prison officials is, “We are currently reviewing this lawsuit.”

Prisoners’ lawyers also point out that the program has been promoted by prison officials and the last two governors as one that will help them reduce the inmate population in accord with a series of orders issued by a three-judge federal court. The judges found that crowded conditions in the state’s adult prisons are the primary cause of inmate health care so lacking that it is unconstitutional.

“Excluding men from the ACP is contrary to (court orders) because overcrowding would be further reduced if the program were offered to men as well,” the motion for a preliminary injunction states.

“CDCR nonetheless excludes a significant portion of eligible prisoners from ACP; the in-custody male prison population is approximately 120,659, whereas the female in-custody population is approximately 6,244 (roughly 1/20th the size).”

Callison pointed to a paragraph in a recent report from the corrections department to the three-judge court. It says:

“The state expects to bring an 82-bed facility in San Diego on line this month and is searching for additional sites for the Alternative Custody Program for females. CDCR is currently marketing the program to female inmates and is reviewing inmate applications to determine placement in the program.”