Prisons Prepare to Integrate Cellmates

Tanya Schevitz, San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2008

San Quentin State Prison inmate Lexy Good is white, hangs out with whites on the prison exercise yard and must be careful not to associate with blacks and Latinos. No cards, no basketball outside the color lines.

Those are the unwritten inmate rules of prison life. People stick to their own race.

Good, who’s doing a short stretch for receiving stolen property, likes it that way.

“We segregate amongst ourselves because I’d rather hang out with white people, and blacks would rather hang out with people of their own race,” said Good, 33, of Walnut Creek. “Look at suburbia. Look at Oakland. Look at Beverly Hills. People in society self-segregate.”

Soon that may change in the prisons.

San Quentin and 30 or so other state penal facilities are gearing up to carry out a federal court mediation agreement for integrating double cells and ending the use of race as the sole determining factor in making cell assignments.

Men in California’s prisons have long been segregated in cells to quell racial tensions.

But Good, along with California’s other 155,700 male inmates, may soon be forced to live in a 4-by-9-foot cell with an inmate of a different race.

A 1995 lawsuit filed by a black California inmate, Garrison Johnson, said that the California Department of Corrections’ practice of segregating prisoners by race violated his rights. A 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court led to federal court mediation and the agreement that double cells would be desegregated.

While most inmates and correctional officials agree that it is a noble idea, many fear the worst.

“They should be thinking about what kind of war they are going to start,” said a San Quentin inmate who identified himself only as S. Styles, 36, of Vallejo. “It is like putting a cat and a dog in a cell together.”

Lt. Rudy Luna, assistant to the warden at San Quentin, said there is some concern among prison officials about the change because much of the violence is already based around racial gangs.

State mandate

{snip} [Luna said,] “I think we will have a spike in fighting because we have races that don’t get along. If it was up to us, we’d keep it the way it is. But it is a state mandate.”

Among the state’s male inmates, about 28.9 percent are black, 39.3 percent are Latino, 25.9 percent are white, and 5.9 percent are classified as other, according to figures from the state Department of Corrections.

“There are a lot of incidents in prison where you have a group of inmates going against another group of inmates,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “You have these groups aligned along race but it is about control. It is about criminal activities.”

As currently planned, the cell integration will begin July 1 as a pilot project at two prisons—Mule Creek State Prison in Ione (Amador County) and the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown (Tuolumne County). Next year, the plan calls for integration to begin at other prisons.

Interviewing inmates

In carrying out the plan, prison officials will interview and evaluate each inmate. Department of Corrections officials know some inmates cannot be placed with inmates of other races. {snip}

Inmate David Johnson said that all the races sit together peacefully in the prison church and they work together with few problems. But he wouldn’t socialize with inmates of another race outside of those settings where he is forced to mingle.

Loyal to his race

“Prison politics” dictate that he stay loyal to his race, Johnson said. And the repercussions for a violation are swift and severe.

“You would be taken care of in some way. You could get stabbed or worse,” said Johnson, 38, of San Diego. “Whether you agree with the (unwritten) rules or not, you have to follow them.”

{snip}

{snip}

However, experts say it can work. The Texas prison system integrated its cells in the early 1990s and eventually saw a decline in racial tensions, said Professor Jim Marquart, chair of the criminology department at the University of Texas at Dallas, who studied the transition and is advising California during its process.

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