California to Begin Integrating Prisons for Men

By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

LANCASTER, Calif. -- Male prisoners in the nation's largest corrections system, long kept segregated by race in an effort to temper violence, will soon be sharing cells with inmates of other ethnicities.

A program aimed at integrating California's prisons for men will begin in coming weeks at two facilities and will be extended to the state's 28 other penitentiaries over the next year or so, officials said.

Segregating prison housing has long been the system's unwritten policy. But after an inmate's civil rights lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a mediated settlement led the state to reverse course despite many inmates' opposition.

Officials now argue that segregation perpetuated racial divisions and that integration would lessen them.

"We believe that once integrated housing is in place, it will ease those tensions and build that tolerance," said Ken Lewis, spokesman for the California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster. "The system has to have something in place to give them a push. One day these guys will get out, and they'll have to learn to live among different people. If he can be tolerant in prison, he can be tolerant on the street."

Mule Creek State Prison in Ione and the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, which are both in Northern California, will be the first to implement the program, with Lancaster and others to follow.

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."

Raxon spoke inside a cramped, sweaty gymnasium-turned-dormitory for 150 low- to mid-level offenders. The racial divide was palpable. Amid the rows of beds, blacks shared triple-decked bunks with blacks, Hispanics with Hispanics, whites with whites. They took turns using a handful of tables, as well as the television remote control. On this day, it belonged to the Hispanics.

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.

"Personally, I'm not racist, but if a white guy moved into a cell with me, he would have problems with his white friends," Atkins said. "A majority of the prison population don't think for themselves. The gang leaders do."

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