In California, a segregation bastion falls

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

David Getzschman
A black inmate sleeps across from a white inmate at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, Calif. The state's prisons are being racially integrated following a legal challenge.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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