Marc Madow, who spent 17 months in a California prison, says strict segregation of inmates into race groups has unintentionally turned state prisons into factories of racism.
Prison officials and politicians say separating inmates by race boosts safety and control - and is just being practical.
Justice experts say the story is a window into prisons in every state, reflecting the consequences of bulging populations and soaring gang activity.
From entry to exit, nearly every activity - sleep, exercise, and meals - is determined by race. In one California prison, even weightlifting equipment is labeled "B" for black, "W" for white, or "L" for Latino to avoid fights over it.
These conditions divide inmates and foster a racism that persists after release, says Mr. Madow, who was convicted of writing bad checks. "I thought segregation was dead, but there it was, as vivid as an Alabama lunch counter in the '50s."
But the reasons for such policies are clear, observers say. "It's not a matter of prejudice or stereotyping," says Robert McNamara, a criminologist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "If [wardens] didn't put them with their own kind, they might not last a day."
Now out of prison and off parole, Madow, an antiques dealer, is trying to raise public consciousness about institutions that are nominally "correctional," but that in practice may breed the worst qualities of human intolerance, prejudice, and bigotry.
"They were teaching us not to get along and telling us it was OK not to get along," he recalls. "I watched men come in who were racially neutral but who left walking the walk and talking the talk of hatred and fanaticism."
Upon arrival, inmates are divided into four racial categories - white, African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and "other". All nonwhites are then subdivided according to gang - Bloods or Crips for African-Americans - or geographic criteria, such as northern or southern Hispanic.
This practice is pernicious, says Madow, because those who claim no group are forced to choose one. They develop racial affiliations that continue in prison days and beyond.
"If you live in prison for five to 10 years as a Crip or a Blood, that is your 'jacket' when you leave," he says. "You adopt a dress, a loyalty. And members of both gangs know who you are from that day forward."
These segregation practices are ones that prison officials nationwide "have both allowed and been forced into by the increased populations and violence of US prisons," says Paul Cromwell, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University.
The coast-to-coast rise of gang activity since 1975 has been tough on prisons, he adds, because such affiliations by inmates not only transcend prison barriers, they become more important on the inside.
"The public may be rightly horrified by such segregation measures, but they have become an increasingly common fact of life," says Professor Cromwell.
From 1985 to 1996, the US state prison population nearly tripled, from 462,284 to 1,076,625. Over that period, the rise of Hispanic populations has changed the power balance of ethnic gangs, experts say. Big-name gangs like Black Guerrilla Family have been displaced by Mexican and California gangs such as the Brown Mafia.
Life on the inside
Race identification in prisons is crucial because of a need for protection, says Madow. When major fights occur between people of different races - a weekly occurrence, he says - all members of each race must join in. Anyone who balks is roughed up or even killed by his own kind.
"All self worth in prison is generated by respect, racial or otherwise," he says, "because inmates have been stripped of everything else - jobs, family, money, clothes, lifestyle."
Replacing those is what Madow calls "pigment think" - a conscious effort by both prison officials and inmates to maintain control by identifying each individual as part of a racial group.
"Inmates dramatically outnumber guards, so [the prison] has a vested interest in keeping the inmate population divided against itself rather than [against] them. Guards need to channel any kind of unrest away from themselves and onto another group."
They also need to prevent racial flare-ups to begin with. For this reason, each race has its own barber who uses his clippers only on members of one race.
Each race is also assigned a certain number of beds. If one bed becomes vacant, no member of another race can occupy it - even if a shortage of beds forces other races to use overflow facilities in the prison gym.
Although no formal divisions of eating facilities are enforced, inmates regularly segregate themselves. Unstated rules prohibit blacks and whites from exchanging food, candy, or cigarettes.
Surviving without a group
Madow's story is confirmed by a fellow inmate, probation violator Aristotle Zylexio Starchild, a Pacific Islander from Papua New Guinea. Because of his dark skin, he was advised to dorm with the African-American inmates but refused, opting to be designated "other."
"Within hours I was visited by Bloods who said I could get messed up, even killed for making that decision," Mr. Starchild recalls.
As for Madow, he was able to sidestep gang affiliation because of his age - at 42, nearly twice the prison average, by being college educated, and by being in the one race, white, for which there were no subgroups. "The whites are all thrown together - Aryan brotherhood, attorneys, and bikers - so there is no immediate subgroup to go to war with," he says.
Now that he is out, he still avoids physical and eye contact with other races and doesn't start conversations or share with those of other ethnic groups.
Youth especially at risk
Youth fare even worse, Starchild and Madow aver.
A typical scenario, they say, is that of a young black man serving seven months for a DUI (driving under the influence). "He went from nice kid to hard-nosed monster with tattoos, baggy pants, and attitude," Starchild says.
Prison officials admit that attempts to prevent such episodes through counseling don't often work.
"It is very difficult for a young, naive first-termer coming into prison to resist the pressures of other inmates," says Jerry Underwood, spokesman for the California State Prison at Jamestown, where Madow served from August 1992 to Nov. 1993.
The state has tried to quell gang activity by sending leaders to other prisons. But this only spawned more activity.
Madow's assessment gets no argument from state officials. "It's a fact of prison life," says Underwood. "These people are felons who will prey on anyone weaker than themselves. Our overriding concern is that they don't violate the safety and security of other inmates."
Safety vs. civil rights
Maintaining control can require measures that seem extreme from the outside. But inmates forfeit some rights, experts say, including the right to bear arms. And while they still have the right to be free of racially-discriminating patterns in housing and treatment, scholars say another civil right takes precedence: the right to live.
"Courts know prisons are being asked to run their facilities with meager sources and bulging populations," says Robert Pugsley, law professor at Southwestern School of Law here. So their tactics "are met with friendly judicial reception."
But this hasn't stopped Madow, who has taken his case to both Amnesty International, which says a 1998 campaign on human rights will examine the issue, and to California legislators who have welcomed his views but promised no action.
"Madow is absolutely correct in his assessment, but I don't know what the answer is," says California Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D), of Los Angeles, who sits on the Assembly budget committee, which oversees corrections.
Just because no one yet knows the solution is not a reason to suppress the problem, counters Madow.
"The first step to correcting the situation," he says, "is for the public to understand that there is a problem."