Jewish inmates cant claim to be other, court rules

A Vietnamese American prisoner who claims that Jewish inmates should be classified as “other,” so they won’t be locked up with white supremacists has had his lawsuit rejected by the courts.

Marin Superior Court Judge Verna Adams ruled last month that Viet Mike Ngo already is classified as “other,” so the point is moot.

Ngo, who claims he underwent an informal conversion to Judaism two years ago, sued San Quentin State Prison, claiming the prison utilized race as the overwhelming factor in assigning cellmates and during emergency lockdown situations.

But in a late December ruling, Adams denied each and every one of Ngo’s claims, it was learned this week.

“Petitioner has not convinced this court that he is in fact Jewish. The mischief which would be invited by requiring Respondents to accept an inmate’s evolving descriptions of his own ethnicity and religious affiliations is evident,” wrote Adams in her ruling.

And even if Ngo is Jewish, “Petitioner is already classified as ‘other’ … “

Ngo is currently housed in Soledad Prison, a medium-security facility, but was housed in San Quentin when he filed his suit in 2002. Members of California Prison Focus, which handled Ngo’s lawsuit, had expressed confidence to j., after the proceedings wrapped up in November, and were understandably disappointed.

“We were trying to get the court to say Jews are ‘other,’ but she didn’t say that. She said Mike’s not a Jew, which, I guess, is the upshot of the entire thing,” said Tara Caffrey, California Prison Focus’ coordinator for social work.

“The argument he was trying to make about Jews being characterized as white, and [how] — when the institution does race-based lockdowns — the Jews will be locked up with the Aryan Brothers, will not be impacted by this decision at all. That will continue.”

Adams, however, wrote that San Quentin’s “record on the subject of preventing cell fights is excellent.”

While Ngo and his lawyer, Charles Carbone, contended that race is the overwhelming factor in assigning cellmates and during lockdown situations, Adams ruled that it was one of many factors, and an acceptable one to utilize.

“This court has concluded that there is some de facto racial segregation in the cell assignment practices at San Quentin State Prison; however there is no policy at San Quentin that requires inmates to be racially segregated in their housing assignments,” wrote Adams, who ruled that such de facto segregation is not illegal.

“If, outside prison walls, a government institution followed practices similar to the cell assignments at San Quentin, this court would strike them down as unconstitutional. A prison is, by its very nature, different from (and much more dangerous than) a community comprised of members of the public at large.”

Diann Sokolov, the California deputy attorney general who represented the state, noted that prisoners often choose to live with a cellmate of their own racial group, just as Ngo chose to live with several cellmates who were not.

Ngo was sentenced to 17 years to life after being found guilty of second-degree murder in the 1988 shooting death of a 14-year-old. He is eligible for parole in 2005.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.