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."
The state's push to integrate prison housing stems from a lawsuit filed in 1995 by Garrison Johnson against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Johnson, a black inmate serving time for murder, robbery and assault, said that segregation heightened the pressure he was under to join gangs and associate only with blacks. Cell integration, he said, would alleviate that pressure.
In a 2005 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the highest level of constitutional review -- "strict scrutiny" -- should apply anytime government imposes racial classifications. It returned the case to a lower court, where both parties reached the settlement that is now being implemented.
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.
Those who refuse to participate in the classification process are subject to disciplinary action, such as restrictive housing or loss of some privileges. Of the 144,437 inmates interviewed, 64.4 percent were found eligible to room with members of another race, according to department documents. About 12 percent refused to participate.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that people think we're going to put the Aryan Brotherhood in the same cell with the Mexican mafia. That's just stupid. Why would we do that?" Thornton said. "We have agreed to the extent possible to integrate the male population. Are you going to have 100 percent of all inmates integrated? No, but that's not because of their race, it's because of the inmates."
Race has long been a factor when sorting and classifying prisoners, said Chad Trulson, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Texas.
Today, most cells are segregated, he said, but several inmate lawsuits have brought about changes to these unofficial policies. That was the case in Texas, which once housed members of different races in separate prisons. A suit prompted integration of the prisons in the late 1970s, and the policy was extended to individual cells nearly a decade later.
Trulson, who studied the aftermath of Texas's integration and is now advising California officials, said violence spiked initially but then subsided.
"Over the next decade and beyond, what we found is that violence among integrated cell partners was no more likely than violence among cell partners who were segregated by race," he said.
California has modeled its program closely after Texas's, but it faces different hurdles. 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.
"You don't have that dynamic in Texas," Trulson said