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California Prisons Wary of Desegregation Plan

March 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE: For three decades, California state prisons have practiced racial segregation.

PRISON GUARD: Enemies, besides the northern active members?

PRISONER: None.

JEFFREY KAYE: As convicts enter the system, guards invariably assign bunks, and cells, and dormitories to prisoners of the same race. Inmates generally support the practice.

PRISONER: I don’t want to integrate.

JEFFREY KAYE: I’m sorry?

PRISONER: I wouldn’t want to integrate around here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Why not?

PRISONER: It’s not good for your health.

JEFFREY KAYE: It’s not safe?

PRISONER: Yes.

JEFFREY KAYE: Prisoners say for their survival they must demonstrate loyalties to racial gangs, which are hostile to each other. California’s prison gangs are notorious for their power and their numbers, says Mark Valente, a correctional officer at the Deuel Vocational Institute, one of California’s 33 state prisons.

MARK VALENTE: In all institutions, you have the southern Hispanics, which are mainly from Fresno south. You have the northern Hispanics from Fresno up. You have the blacks; they have the Crips; they have the Bloods; you have white, Aryan brotherhood-type gangs. And the inmates fight for control of what they have in here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Officials have justified their unwritten policy of assigning cellmates by skin color, saying it curbs interracial violence, but that practice has been challenged. Attorney Bert Deixler represented a black prisoner, Garrison Johnson, who sued the California prison system over its policy of segregated housing.

BERT DEIXLER: A hundred and seventy thousand people a year are subject to this kind of behavior, which is not tolerated in any other aspect of American life and hasn’t been for fifty years. It’s the shame of California.

JEFFREY KAYE: Deixler argued that, not only is the segregation unconstitutional, it actually strengthens racial prison gangs.

BERT DEIXLER: A guy comes off a bus, and they look at his skin color, and they say, “He’s African-American; put him there.” The second fellow comes off the bus. They say, “He’s African-American.” They put him with the first African-American.

If the first guy is a member of a gang, and the second guy isn’t, well, he’s just assigned a roommate who’s going to convert him to the gang. If they’re members of opposite, quarreling gangs, we’ve now just created an environment in which cell mates can try to kill one another. And so the whole system makes absolutely no sense.

JEFFREY KAYE: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and a year ago ordered California to take steps to desegregate its prison housing. So last December, state prison authorities announced they would phase in racial desegregation starting on March the 1st of this year.

BERT DEIXLER: And I’ve been assured that the training sessions are ongoing and that this will be successfully rolled out as scheduled.

JEFFREY KAYE: But that schedule’s start date has come and gone. There’s been no training, no new system rolled out, and prison authorities admit desegregation is still a long way off.

VICTOR ALMAGER: We’re looking at, conservatively, between 12 to 16 months.

JEFFREY KAYE: Victor Almager, associate warden at Deuel, is a member of a task force working on racial integration in the prisons. He says the delay is due in part to the time it takes to modify the system of recordkeeping and collect data on all inmates.

VICTOR ALMAGER: So that will take some time for us to do. Once we’ve accomplished the coding, once we’ve accomplished training for our staff, information to both offenders, staff and the public, and we have coded all of the offenders, then we can begin our housing protocol.

JEFFREY KAYE: But racial desegregation will be an uphill battle. The gangs have a lot at stake and use racial solidarity as a means of control.

Thirty-four-year-old Andre Williams has spent most of his adult life behind bars. He says he’d be in danger from other African-Americans if he associates with other races.

ANDRE WILLIAMS: They’re going to down-look you for that. And you might get jumped; you might get slashed; you might get cut. It just promotes a problem.

JEFFREY KAYE: You might be assaulted just for bunking with someone of the opposite race?

ANDRE WILLIAMS: Outside your race, because you’re going against the standards and the morals of the prison.

JEFFREY KAYE: Latino and white inmates have similar standards.

STEPHEN DAWSON, Prisoner: It is a code, and it’s basically death before dishonor. That’s it. That’s it. If you don’t comply by those rules, you’re going to be complied to.

JEFFREY KAYE: The inmates’ racial rules require obedience to a code that forbids prisoners from exercising with, bunking with, or eating with inmates of other races.

DOUG ELLIS: I’m pretty new to this, so I’m considered one of the soldiers. And when something comes up that happens within my car or within the white race, period, then I’m going to have to get up, and I’m going to have to put it down.

JEFFREY KAYE: Guards are also worried that racial integration could spark violence. Chuck Alexander is executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards union. He says an inmate could try to sabotage desegregation plans by attacking a guard.

CHUCK ALEXANDER: … because, by doing that, he then goes into an administrative segregation setting, et cetera, et cetera. And he doesn’t lose face with the other individuals that were trying to get him to do something, because assaulting an officer kind of gives him a free pass, so to speak.

JEFFREY KAYE: The guards’ fears seem borne out. Inmates told us that racial integration would bring resistance, even if it means going into maximum security, AKA the hole.

BRAD HESSE: If they implement it, OK, what’s going to happen is, in a breakdown mode, first bunk that that happens, the person’s going to refuse to go bunk with that race, refuse to go eat with that race. They’re going to refuse. They’re going to go to the hole. Then their holes are going to be filled, because everybody’s going to have to follow that suit.

ANDRE WILLIAMS: Being in and out of this system for years that I’ve seen and done things here, it could get ugly. It could really get ugly. And behind closed doors, a lot of sneaky and dirty things happen.

JEFFREY KAYE: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racial segregation can be used in a limited way for security. That was the tactic used recently in a Los Angeles county jail racked by race riots. Fighting between Latinos and African-Americans left two inmates dead and more than 100 injured.

To diffuse tension, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, the man in charge of the jail system, decided racial segregation was a necessity.

LEE BACA: We have been separating Hispanics and the African-American inmates where the disturbances have been occurring, and we’re doing it as a temporary provision, obviously to calm things down. I think the segregation will last until the fighting has subsided to the point where we can reintegrate on a safer basis.

JEFFREY KAYE: But in the state system, prison officials acknowledge that, despite intentions, they will never be able to racially integrate many prisoners because of their propensity for violence.

VICTOR ALMAGER: For instance, you may have offenders who have a history of predatory violence towards other races. You may have offenders who have a propensity towards violence towards any cell partner. So we have to look at the case factors, because our strategy is security and control.

JEFFREY KAYE: Because of that control, authorities realize color barriers won’t be easily broken. And they expect that, if desegregation does take place, once inmates leave their racially integrated cells and go out to the yards or to the dining halls, old patterns of self-segregation will continue.