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Inmates and integration

A court mandate for California's prisons means rewriting some unwritten rules.

July 27, 2008|T.A. Frank | T.A. Frank is an editor at the Washington Monthly and an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation.

To be honest, it didn't look like racial segregation. I was standing among long rows of metal bunk beds in a room where 36 men of different races -- black, white, Latino -- live together more or less peaceably. But the setting was a dormitory for minimum-security inmates at the Sierra Conservation Center, a prison in Tuolumne County near Yosemite, and in such places, unwritten rules apply.

One of the rules is that each bunk must be shared by two men of the same race. The bunks are close together. A white inmate could probably shake hands with a black inmate in a neighboring bunk without either man having to get out of bed. But that's a horizontal matter. Vertically, prison politics require that each bunk be occupied by two men of one race. Beside someone of another race, yes. Above or beneath, no. I didn't ask about diagonal.

Well-meaning Americans have long debated how best to encourage racial integration. Should government be aggressive in bringing it about quickly? Or should we rely on social evolution to achieve it more slowly and organically? In the case of California's prisons, however, the informed answer to these questions has generally been

That's because California is cursed with race-based prison gangs, entities that originated in the state's corrections system during the 1960s and 1970s. (They include the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family and La Nuestra Familia, to name a few.) Because racial violence is central to prison-gang mores, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, has long followed unwritten rules of segregation in the interest of keeping the peace. In Level I and Level II units, which are minimum-to-medium security (Level IV is the highest level of security), inmates and staff alike honor the one-race-to-a-bunk-bed rule. When a bed in a "black" bunk opens up, for instance, only a black person is assigned to it, even if a white inmate is available to fill the spot.

In Level III and Level IV units, where prisoners generally live two to a cell, whites room with whites, Latinos with Latinos, blacks with blacks, and so forth. Corrections officers avoid assigning men of different races to a two-person cell, and inmates avoid requesting roommates of a different race.

But that's all about to change. In 1995, a black inmate named Garrison Johnson filed suit against the state, protesting that race-based cell assignments were unconstitutional. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2005, Johnson effectively won. Although attorneys for California argued that cell-level segregation helped to reduce violence among prisoners, a five-justice majority held that allowing race to be the deciding factor in cell assignments -- even when an inmate wasn't affiliated with a gang -- would be likely to "breed further hostility among prisoners and reinforce racial and ethnic divisions."

As a result, the CDCR came up with a plan to desegregate its cells. Phase one of the plan (training staff, consulting outside experts and interviewing and assessing California's inmates) is complete, say prison officials, and now it's time for phase two -- actual integration -- to be rolled out in prisons statewide. One of the first in line is the Sierra Conservation Center, which has already made the switch in Level III and will start breaking the existing racial codes in Level I and Level II dormitories sometime in the next few weeks. I visited hoping to determine whether the state was embarking on something laudable or merely something dumb.

Let's start with "laudable." In July 2007, the Sierra Conservation Center quietly made its Level III unit into a "Sensitive Needs Yard," or SNY, a facility specifically for inmates who (either because of the type of crime they've committed or the type of enemies they've made) seek out special housing away from the general population. The former inmates were reassigned to new prisons, and all the newcomers were assigned to racially integrated two-person cells. (No one was physically forced to integrate, but inmates are punished and lose a raft of privileges, such as family visits, if they resist.)

According to the CDCR's Lt. Rodney L. Kirkland, who oversaw the transition, the results have been surprisingly positive. Within the cells, inmates have adapted to their roommates. Even outside the cells, inmates of different races can be seen sitting together at mealtime.

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