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In California, a segregation bastion falls

The state's prisons will begin full integration July, amid some worry about racial violence.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 2008

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Jamestown, Calif.

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.

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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, spokes- woman 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.

"It is allowed. It's just that many inmates feel pressured not to do that from gangs and disruptive groups. Gangs are formed along racial lines," says Ms. Thornton. Gangs are also responsible for the more prevalent intra-racial violence as well, say prison officials.

In some prisons, resistance

Under the new rules, each incoming prisoner will be screened to determine gang affiliations, past racial violence, and willingness to integrate. Members of rival gangs won't be lumped together, so there won't be a member of the Mexican Mafia, for instance, sharing a 5-by-9-foot cell with someone from the Aryan Brotherhood.

Prisoners without a record of gang ties or racial violence can refuse to integrate, but they will be punished.

The Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown will be one of the first prisons to implement the changes. It houses 4,000 minimum-and medium-security inmates, and trains some of them to join inmate crews dispatched to fight wildfires.

It's a prison with some of the state's most amenable inmates. Yet its inhabitants vociferously object.

"Nobody in their right mind wants to see racial tensions [stirred up by this] because if you've got that, people can get hurt, people can get killed," says Gerald Roberts, a black inmate. Racial fights don't break out often, he says, but "it can get major" when they do. The integration plan, he says, will "create a problem where there is none."