California Prisons Uneasily Prepare to Desegregate Cells

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2006

CHINO, Calif.—It’s exercise time at the California Institution for Men, and dozens of inmates walk around the track in pairs or small groups—blacks with blacks, whites with whites, Hispanics with Hispanics.

Prison culture dictates that inmates stick with their own kind, associating almost exclusively with other inmates from their race or ethnic group, defending them to the death if necessary. And that is why prison officials, inmates and scholars are uneasy as California’s prison system prepares to introduce a formal policy desegregating its double cells, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that prisoners may not be routinely segregated in cells by race. The ruling has ramifications for state correctional systems nationwide.

In 2004, an African-American inmate challenged the California Department of Corrections’ unwritten policy of assigning new prisoners and transfers to double cells only with a cellmate of the same race or ethnic group. The corrections department claimed segregated prison cells were necessary to avoid racial violence. Unswayed, the high court last year refused to strike down the inmate’s challenge. California’s new policy, which officials expect to implement over the next 2½ years, is the result of a settlement of that case.

California’s prison population is combustible, divided roughly evenly among three groups: 38% of inmates are Hispanic, 29% are black and 27% white. Recent race-related prison violence in Southern California has focused concerns about thrusting inmates together in biracial cells. For more than a month now, clashes of black and Latino prisoners have gripped Los Angeles county jails, resulting in two deaths and more than 100 injuries. In October, a Hispanic inmate at Chino died from head injuries inflicted in a riot last summer.

Critics of the new policy say the purpose of segregated cells is to keep prisons peaceful and safe, not to discriminate. “You must give broad latitude to the prison administrator,” says Joseph McNamara, former police chief of San Jose, Calif., and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “If not, you let slaughtering happen.”

California’s prison system, at present still operating largely under the old policy, uses ethnicity as the main criteria when assigning higher-threat inmates to double cells. Racial segregation doesn’t apply at mealtimes, in classes or in dormitories where low-risk felons are housed. Prisoners, however, say they live along self-imposed racial divides all day. “It’s an unwritten rule,” says Reginald Scott, a black inmate in Chino since 1998, who was at his job typing up inmate infractions in a small administrative room. “You don’t have coffee with a white or Hispanic guy. You don’t trade food, property or anything with someone of a different race.”

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Under the new California policy, new prisoners will be assigned to “the next available and appropriate cell,” without regard for ethnicity. “We are not preparing [offenders] for their return to society if we continue to allow them to be segregated in our housing,” said John Dovey, the corrections department’s director of adult institutions who is overseeing the new policy.

Academic researchers say racial tension is usually engineered by a small group of inmates. Prisoners say when tensions explode it is almost impossible to stay neutral. “If you run away, your own people deal with you later,” says Joe Rodriguez, a Hispanic inmate at the Chino prison. “Once you’re in jail, everything becomes racial.”

Gangs defined by race—the Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerilla Family, the Nazi Low Riders and others—permeate inmate life in California prisons. At Chino, a low—and medium-security facility, inmates working as gardeners and handymen sport gang acronyms tattooed to the backs of their heads.

Lt. Tim Shirlock, an official at the Chino facility who has worked in the state correctional system for 27 years, says the prison staff is “apprehensive” about the desegregation policy. Noting recent instances of racial violence on streets, schools and workplaces in Los Angeles, he says, “If they can’t get along in society, you have to wonder whether they will get along here.”

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