Posted on June 13, 2008

In California, a Segregation Bastion Falls

Ben Arnoldy, Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2008

One of the last bastions of racial segregation will be breached next month. Trailing most US states, California will start fully integrating its prison cells beginning July 1.

The change has both inmates and prison guards nervous about racial violence in America’s largest state prison system. They depict race relations behind bars as a delicate truce in which one transgression can trigger a riot.

Among the most diverse in the nation, California’s overcrowded prisons also have entrenched prison-gang cultures. Integration of prison cells will test the state’s ability to tackle that problem peacefully. Officials behind the change, though, point to research that suggests any uptick in violence would be short-lived, followed by longer-term benefits.

“In the other states where this has been done, it has assisted in gang management, reduced violence, reduced racial tension. And it helps with breaking down prejudicial barriers and reflects community norms,” says Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

The policy change comes in response to a legal challenge that rose to the US Supreme Court in 2004. No more than three states including Oklahoma still have segregated prisons.

Currently, new arrivals to a California prison are assigned temporary cellmates of the same race for 60 days. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, and “others” are kept separate from one another.

The rest of the prison system is technically integrated, according to officials, including dining halls, prison yards, and permanent cell assignments. In practice, however, inmates self-select along racial and ethnic lines. And while prisoners may request a permanent cellmate of a different race, they almost never do.