Prisons, race, and society

Sasezley Richardson, a 19-year-old African-American, was carrying a bag of diapers down a quiet street in Elkhart, Ind., last month when he was fatally shot. Two white teenagers charged with the murder were looking for any black person to kill, allege local law-enforcement authorities.

One of the assailants had recently been released from an Indiana juvenile prison where, a local newspaper alleges, he'd joined the Aryan Brotherhood, a violent, racist prison gang with affiliates nationwide. The other assailant, the Elkhart Truth newspaper reported, hoped the Richardson killing would earn him membership in the Aryan Brotherhood.

The case recalls the dismemberment last year of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was killed by young white men who had joined a white supremacist gang while in prison and then carried its murderous ideology out onto the streets.

In the past two decades, white supremacist groups have grown in strength and number in US prisons. They now exert enormous influence over the lives of thousands of men and women who live and work in prisons. They also appear to play an important role in recruitment for extremist groups outside of prisons. These developments coincide with an explosive increase in incarceration rates, especially among people of color.

The long-term consequences for race relations in America are profound. Yet as the incidence of incarceration rises, so does our unwillingness to ask or acknowledge what is happening behind prison walls.

Prisons are perhaps the most racially divisive institutions in America. At present rates of incarceration, 1 out of every 4 black men, 1 out of every 6 Hispanic men, and 1 out of every 20 white men will go to prison in their lifetimes. Most arrive young, poor, undereducated, and unprepared for the violent racism and hatred of the prison world. Within a few years, the majority return to the world outside, taking their lessons of hatred with them. Many become foot soldiers for extremist groups first encountered behind bars.

Inmates aren't the only white supremacists in prisons; prison staff are often involved as well. Several years ago at the juvenile institution in Plainfield, Ind., where one of Sasezley Richardson's assailants was once incarcerated, black staff received a venomous "Message From Your Grand Wizard" in their mailboxes. At the adjoining adult prison, a white supremacist recruitment poster was tacked to the staff bulletin board, and a sergeant was demoted when he showed his Klan membership card to a black officer.

At the nearby state prison in Putnamville, Ind., staff and inmates have alleged a reign of terror by a staff-based white supremacist group called, simply, the Brotherhood. In 1990, a senior officer at the prison alerted the Indiana Department of Correction to "white supremacy and racism in the workplace among employees and offenders." Over the ensuing years, members of the Brotherhood were accused of wearing Klan and skinhead paraphernalia at work, posting swastikas, and openly sporting Brotherhood tattoos.

Staff and inmates filed numerous complaints of racial and sexual harassment, intimidation, physical assault, drug trafficking, and corruption by Brotherhood members. The Department of Correction's own internal affairs investigator confirmed "widespread ... racially motivated" incidents.

The Brotherhood operated with impunity at Putnamville until 21 ministers from the nearby town of Greencastle, Ind., joined by 35 other leading citizens, signed a letter accusing the Department of Correction of "institutionally sanctioned racism and violence." They also expressed concern about "allegations of drug trafficking and corruption at the prison and in the surrounding communities."

Last June, the US Department of Justice started an investigation of civil rights abuses at the prison. And, under pressure from the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, Gov. Frank O'Bannon followed suit, ordering a state police investigation.

Indiana is just one of many states with entrenched problems of racism in its correctional institutions. In Texas and Florida, supermax cells are filled to capacity with white supremacist leaders and their black and Latino counterparts. Klan recruitment among correctional staff has been alleged in New Jersey, while some white staff members of a California prison are being prosecuted for staging deadly gladiator fights between inmates of different color.

As states rush to build more prisons in rural communities - where staff members are mostly white, and inmates are disproportionately black and brown - these problems are likely to grow worse.

We need to acknowledge what is happening within our vast prison archipelago, insist on unstinting oversight by governmental and nongovernmental bodies, and question strategies for dealing with crime that undermine racial reconciliation.

Prison walls can't contain the racial hatreds generated within them. That is the lesson we must learn from Elkhart, Jasper, and Putnamville.

*Kelsey Kauffman, a former correctional officer, is author of 'Prison Officers and Their World' (Harvard University Press, 1988). She is studying white supremacist groups in prisons as a fellow of the New York-based Open Society Institute.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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