Three long years after SCOTUS held in Johnson v. California that prison segregation policies were subject to “strict scrutiny” and remanded to the Federal district court for further consideration, California’s prisons are about to enter a new era of racial desegregation.
It was an unwritten policy in California prisons that members of the same race would be cellies, so as to minimize the opportunity for violence amongst prison gangs, which are usually formed around race.
As a result of a settlement between the plaintiffs and California, however, inmates will no longer be permitted to be paired based on the color of their skin. Not all are excited about this move, however:
Many inmates fiercely oppose integrating cells, calling it a dangerous idea that is guaranteed to lead to widespread riots and death.
“It’s like screwing around with the ecosystem,” said Rodney Raxon, 35, a white inmate at Lancaster’s high-security prison. “We don’t want any part of it.”
Several inmates said racial separation helps preserve the peace. In dining halls and prison yards where convicts can commingle if they choose, they hang out with their own. Chosen representatives handle communication between groups, they said, to avoid riots.
As the gym’s black representative, Lavel Atkins, 34, of Compton, Calif., said he defuses nearly 20 grievances a day over issues such as whether one inmate’s splashing water on another was a sign of disrespect. There would be more disputes, he said, if members of various races were forced to room together.
The lawsuit was initiated by inmate Johnson who argued that segregation heightened the pressure on him (and probably other inmates) to align themselves with a gang.
This new program doesn’t mean there will be complete desegregation, however. Now inmates will be evaluated by a host of other categories to determine who would be an appropriate cellmate:
Under the program, prisoners were interviewed and assigned one of five housing codes based on factors such as criminal history, custody level and the inmate’s preference, said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the corrections department. The classifications determine whether prison officials can place an inmate in a cell with members of all other races, with one race but not others, or with only his own race.
So now race gang affiliation will be one consideration in determining who to pair together, not the only consideration.
I’m not sure if such a program has been undertaken in another state in the country; a state that has similar demographics and gang violence problems like California. The CA program is modeled closely on a similar program utilized by Texas back in the ’70s. But things have changed since then:
With more than 171,000 inmates, California houses nearly four times the population that Texas did when it began the process. And unlike Texas, which integrated with a prison population below capacity, California’s is 195 percent above capacity.
That overflow gives California officials less flexibility, said Thomas Beauclair, deputy director of the National Institute of Corrections. “They’ve got inmates in gymnasiums sleeping on the floor in some of their institutions,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy for them.”
California also faces a larger, more fractious and more entrenched gang problem, according to experts and prisoners. Northern Hispanics, for instance, are warring with Southern Hispanics.
So the success or failure of this program will be watched closely by other states in the country. After all, the major concern in prisons should be the safety of all people who are within those walls – that includes staff and inmates.
Of course, the violence in prisons is also a by-product of severe overcrowding and a breakdown of the rehabilitation function of our correctional institutions. Whether a degeneration of the social and moral fiber of the nation is also a contributing factor is too complex a question to contemplate or answer here.
But if this is a tool in maintaining safety and security in prisons, I am all for it.