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Judge eyes deal involving racial claim at Arizona prisons

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A federal judge said Monday she was considering an agreement between Arizona and an inmate to end a claim of racial segregation in the state’s 10 prisons.

U.S. District Court Judge Cindy Jorgenson in Tucson said she would soon decide whether to accept what she called a sweeping proposal between attorneys for an inmate and for the state.

The agreement came after a year of negotiations involving the civil rights lawsuit filed in 2013 by inmate Stephen Rudisil alleging the state Department of Corrections violates the Constitution by using race-based housing and work assignments.

Rudisill, an African-American, says he was housed with another African-American who pressured him into joining a gang.

Arizona is believed to be one of the only states that uses race as a factor in housing assignments.

If the judge approves the deal, the state would launch a program involving integrated housing and work duties then track its progress. The rollout would begin this year and should be finished by 2021. There would be exceptions, such as for inmates who have a history of racially motivated incidents.

The state has denied that its policies call for racial segregation.

“Evidence was presented to demonstrate how all dormitories, which comprise approximately 85 percent of prison beds, already are racially integrated,” Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said in an email. “There are potentially deadly ramifications to sudden and compulsory racial integration of two-man cells within a prison environment.”

In court on Monday, Jorgenson questioned whether the large-scale changes to the way state prisons house inmates and assign them work are necessary after just one inmate filed a lawsuit. She said the changes would require a lot of resources.

Assistant Attorney General Paul Carter said making changes will avoid future lawsuits by other inmates.

Prison officials have argued that racially based housing assignments help keep peace among inmates, especially among those who are in race-based gangs.

“It’s not a valid argument on its face. Just because a person is black doesn’t mean he’s more prone to attack a white or a Latino,” plaintiff’s attorney Bert Deixler said.

There are about 35,000 inmates in 10 Arizona prisons. Rudisill, who is serving time for aggravated assault, was housed in the Tucson prison when he filed the complaint.

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