AUSTIN — A month after James Byrd Jr., a black man, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death on an east Texas country road, America still struggles to comprehend what dark forces could have sparked such a killing.
David Novak has an idea.
Mr. Novak spent a year in a federal prison camp for mail fraud, a place that left on him an imprint of racial intolerance as indelible as a set of fingerprints. It's the reason, he says, that the racially motivated killing in Jasper, Texas, evoked in him an unexpected feeling: compassion for the three white murder suspects, all recent parolees, and two of whom are alleged to have forged ties with white-supremacist gangs while behind bars.
"In prison it's easy to fall into such groups," says Mr. Novak, a self-described "pretty liberal guy" who nevertheless has come to some hard realizations about his own prejudices since his days as an inmate. "A lot of people come out of prison as bigots."
In the reexamination of race relations that followed Mr. Byrd's lynch-style killing June 6, part of the attention has fallen on the nation's correctional system. Citing the suspects' ties to prison hate groups, some civil rights organizations are calling for renewed scrutiny of the segregation policies of many state and federal prisons, charging that they inadvertently foment hatred and serve as recruiting grounds for supremacist groups.
"It's a Petri dish for the growth of extremism," says Gail Gans of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, which is urging the Justice Department to conduct a formal study of prison hate groups.
The department's only study of the issue dates to 1985. It identified 12,634 inmates within the state and federal systems as members of some sort of prison gang, "usually connected with racial superiority beliefs" - about 3 percent of the total population.
These days, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne estimates, gang membership is between 5 and 10 percent of the population, or from 59,000 to 118,000 inmates.
Moreover, some race-hate groups have even obtained a measure of legitimacy within the system. By claiming religious ties to movements such as the Nation of Islam and the white-supremacist Christian Identity faith, some hate groups have won the right to proselytize their beliefs on First Amendment grounds.
"It's a growing phenomenon and a real concern for us," Ms. Gans says. "These people don't just shed their beliefs when they get out."
Links to prison hate gangs
Some of the most notorious hate crimes of the past 20 years have been linked to prison groups, she says. Most notable is the case of Donald Riley, a member of the white-supremacist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, who was convicted in 1994 of the murder of a black marine in Houston. Gary Yarbrough, who in the late 1970s was a leader of a violent supremacist group called The Order, is also believed to have formed his racist ideology with the Ku Klux Klan in an Arizona prison, Ms. Gans says.
"Race is the fundamental dynamic of prison life," says Anthea Boarman, director of the International Association of Human Rights Agencies. Nationally, the 1.2 million prison population is 40.3 percent black, 29 percent white, and 27.4 percent Hispanic.
Prison officials, for their part, acknowledge that cell blocks are often segregated by race. Putting members of rival gangs together not only endangers the prisoners, but also the lives of the guards and the very security of the institution, they say.
"If putting two people together is going to result in a volatile situation, obviously [segregation] is an option you have to look at," says Jim Turpin, legislative liaison with the American Correctional Association in Lanham, Md. "But you have to remember, these people bring their prejudices from off the street, and they are going to naturally segregate themselves anyway."
Ironically, the Texas prison system - where the suspects in the Jasper murder were incarcerated - is also the nation's most integrated. A 1987 federal district court ruling effectively banned cell-block segregation in the state. Prison officials say the ban has resulted in increased grumbling among inmates, but one statistic suggests it may have had a positive impact on tolerance: Since the ruling went into effect, prison murders have dropped by half to an average of five per year.
Sherman Bell, who classifies prisoners and assigns them to cell blocks for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says integrating the prison system appears to have somewhat lessened racial tensions.
"We''re in the neighborhood of having 60 to 65 percent of our cell blocks completely integrated," he says. "It tends to give you the impression there's much more of a tolerance than [there was] in the '70s, when work squads of different races didn't even work together."
While mixing the races didn't create the bloodbath some prison administrators had predicted, neither was it easy. The court ruling prompted a number of reforms, says Mr. Bell, including beefing up the number of prison guards and more vigilant efforts to isolate gang leaders from the general prison population.
'No different than out there'
Some experts reject the notion that hate groups have turned America's prisons into a "racism factory." Instead, they should be understood as "primarily criminal enterprises wrapped in the rubric of a race organization," says James Marquart, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Their foremost objective is running rackets and making money, he says.
"Yes, the races self-segregate, just like they do everywhere else," says Mr. Marquart. "But in prison, that's harder to do because they're living on top of each other. By definition, prison life is uncomfortable. Tempers flare. But it's no different than out here."
But Novak, who owns a small communications firm in Pensacola, Fla., gained a different perspective in Florida's Federal Prison Camp Eglin. In his before-prison life, he prided himself on his openness toward all cultures and many friendships outside his race. But that changed during the year he spend on the inside.
"Nobody wants to be alone and boy, when you're incarcerated, that's exactly how you feel," says Novak, whose company, Davrie Communications, is dedicated to helping inmates and their families understand prison issues. "The first thing you look for is someone like you, and the first thing you see is skin color. It's funny how the mind works: Soon you can excuse yourself and your friends, but you look around at everyone else and think, 'Man, I'm surrounded by criminals.'
"Even now, every time there's a news report about a murder or a stick-up, I catch myself automatically assuming it's a black person that did it," he says.
While efforts toward further desegregation may prove beneficial, Novak pins most of the blame for prison racism on a lack of positive outlets for inmates to broaden their minds and engage each other. GED courses are freely available, but funding for higher learning has been cut as the criminal-justice pendulum has swung toward warehousing criminals and away from real attempts at rehabilitation, he says. "The human mind," he says, "needs to be occupied to overcome ignorance."