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Riot shows difficulty of desegregating California prisons

Investigations into last weekend’s prison melee in Chino are ongoing. But it was reportedly the result of racial tensions.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2009

Lt. Mark Hargrave describes conditions in a damaged dormitory during a tour of the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif., Tuesday.

Reed Saxon/AP

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San Francisco

When California prisoners rioted this past weekend, the bloody brawl was reportedly sparked by racial tension. Black and Hispanic gang members battled one another with improvised weapons, injuring 175 inmates and destroying 1,200 beds in a vastly overcrowded prison system.

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While officials say the exact cause of the melee is still under investigation, the Aug. 8 violence provides a reminder of the challenges that California faces as it forges ahead with a program to desegregate its prison cells.

"It's going to take years to get this done, so don't expect anything to get done overnight," says James Marquart, director of the Crime and Justice Studies Program at the University of Texas at Dallas.

California's prisons have long been integrated – in its work programs, cafeterias, and prison yards – but the vast majority of its prison cells remain segregated.

The state began implementing a plan to desegregate cells as the result of a 1995 prisoner lawsuit, which challenged the state's policy of assigning bunks to incoming inmates based on race alone. The prisoner said the policy violated his constitutional rights.

In 2005, the US Supreme Court decided the state's practice was constitutionally suspect and returned the case to a lower court. Through mediation, prison officials agreed to begin a process to desegregate its cells, called the Integrated Housing Program.

In October 2008, California started desegregating cells at two facilities.

"And that's the smart, safe way to do it," says Mr. Marquart, whose forthcoming book, "First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System," chronicles the process of desegregation in Texas prisons.

In Texas, he says, 50 to 55 percent of all jail cells are now mixed. Race is still one consideration in determining where a prisoner lives, but it's not the primary factor. That's the same model California is moving toward.

Like California, a prisoner's lawsuit forced the Texas system to change.

Texas is certainly the model for California as it moves toward prison cell desegregation. The process is not intended to integrate every prison cell, because not every prisoner can be safely integrated, says Marquart. "If you suspect them to be a gang member you are not going to integrate those people," he says.

The weekend riot at the California Institute for Men in Chino occurred at a reception area at the facility for incoming inmates. They are waiting to be transferred to other facilities to serve their sentences.

The Chino inmates displaced by the violence are being temporarily held at other facilities. Seven hundred of them are being kept in lockdown in a vacant quarters at a nearby youth facility. They should be transferred to other facilities in several weeks.

The violence that destroyed the dorms at the Chino prison will probably trigger a backlog at other prison intake centers, say officials. But in a system that is nearly at double its capacity, those types of backlogs are not uncommon.

California prison officials say they are unsure when they can expand the Housing Integration Program, as the prisons are increasingly burdened by budget cuts and pressure from the courts to cut their overall population.

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