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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

Mr. Roberts sits in his dorm room, a unit that houses more than a dozen men. Each dorm is integrated, though the racial and ethnic proportions are balanced, but each set of bunk beds is segregated.

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Though these men wake up each morning almost arm's-length from a man of a different race, the suggestion of desegregating bunkmates upsets them.

"Being beside someone is different" from sharing a bunk, says Greg Davenport, a white inmate. "I don't want a young black kid who is a basketball player just dribbling his basketball in my face all day long."

"There's going to be riots," he adds, explaining how small tiffs can quickly escalate. "You just can't have a one-on-one fight with another race. You're going to get jumped on. Your homeboy is going to jump in, their homeboy is going to jump in."

Other prisoners concur that an interracial fight polarizes bystanders along racial lines. A consensus also emerged that inmates would simply refuse to integrate, preferring 90 days of "administrative confinement" over the risk of retribution from other prisoners. That risk involves getting stabbed or cut in the yard, says Rob Keim, a white inmate.

Prison staffers here are also divided on the new rules. Some, like Lt. Jimmy Hurtado, say the changes will ultimately be accepted. Violence was also predicted over previous changes like the banning of tobacco – but it didn't materialize.

Others are less sanguine. Tobacco bans are minor compared with racial integration, says acting Lt. Don Connant. "Race is always prevalent in a prison…. Prison is a subculture. It's always about power and control in their mind-set," he says. "I don't think it's ever going to change. But the courts don't ask Don Connant his opinion."

The Texas experience

In its ruling, the Supreme Court appeared moved by the experience in Texas, one of the more recent states to integrate prison cells in the 1990s. Two professors studied the impact of the change, poring over 10 years of inmate-on-inmate assault data. The result: violence ultimately went down.

"There was initially a little uptick in interracial incidents, but over time the interracial incidents were as low or lower than intra-racial incidents," says James Marquart, chair of the criminology department at the University of Texas in Dallas. "On the basis of that, I think you can say the policy has worked."

Scrutinizing the assaults, very few turned out to be motivated by race – just 300 out of 35,000, says coauthor Chad Trulson, a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Drs. Trulson and Marquart are now helping California prepare to desegregrate its cells. "To do this properly you've got to have the resources to carry it out," says Marquart, "Texas did have a lot of administrative cell space to take care of the nitwits who did not want to do this, and they are an extreme minority."

California's prisons, however, are severely overcrowded. Marquart hints that another key resource will be patience. Habits won't change overnight. "It should work," he says. "But it's going to take years and years before it becomes part of the tradition."