SAN FRANCISCO, California—In one of the darkest corners of California, a state that prides itself on its liberal values, official racial segregation lives on, impacting hundreds of thousands of prison inmates.
When criminals arrive at a state prison, guards typically divide them by race to reduce what California’s Department of Corrections calls “anti-social behavior.”
Even when the races are mixed after an initial 60-day reception period, prisoners often interact mostly and sometimes exclusively with members of their own race.
Roderick Hickman, secretary of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency overseeing California’s 32 prisons and 163,000 inmates, says prisons only reflect a racially divided America.
“To have an expectation . . . that the prison environment was going to stop people from associating with like members of their own group—hey, I’d be asking for a Nobel Peace Prize if you’d get that done,” he said. “If you go into the schools, if you go into our communities, people are somewhat divided into their own groups, so I think it is a big task to say that we’re going to do something more in the prisons than people are doing in their own communities.”
Experts say prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia also exert pressure on prisoners to self-segregate.
“If you’re a Hispanic and Hispanic gang members see you talking to a a Caucasian or a black person, they’ll beat the hell out of you, so what do you do?” said one prison official who did not want to be named. “In other words, some of the segregation is imposed by the prisoners.”
“There seems to be more pressure in some races than others. In California there is more pressure, you know, by Hispanic gangs. In parts of Texas there is more pressure in the white Aryan Brotherhood-type gangs.”