Why racial segregation in prisons isn't about race

California prisons still segregate by race. Why? It has to do with safety and prison gangs.


Up until about 60 years ago the courts did not meddle much with prisons. They acknowledged a lack of expertise in the area of prison management. That is no longer the case. This brings about a reasonable question, at least in some instances, as to when the court is providing reasonable oversight, guidance and control and when the court is engaging in unreasonable meddling in a situation they know nothing about and cannot really appreciate.

Recent and ongoing court actions focused on California state prisons are pretty interesting in several areas in this general vein. Among them are racially segregated housing of inmates.

Unlike most prison systems in the U.S., the California system segregates prisoners by race. They do this not because they like to, or because they believe racial segregation is a good thing. They do so, and continue to do so, due to the reasonable perception that it is necessary. It should also be noted that in a very real sense much of this segregation is not racial, but gang based. Prison inmate gangs have a very strong tendency to be racially focused.

I have worked extensively in general population celled housing, general population dorm housing, and reception center housing, as a line officer, a sergeant and a lieutenant. I can speak with some authority on this matter. With very, very few exceptions, inmates refuse to share a cell with an inmate not of his racial group, and refuse to share dorm bunk space in a vertical stack (two or three bunks high) with an inmate not of his racial group.

Once upon a time, several years back, the department decided (in response to pressure from the legislature) to integrate prison housing. It was a disaster, though only briefly, as the department backed away from the program. Prisons were faced with inmates who flat out refused to enter their assigned cells or to hit their racks at lights out in the dorm.

In instances where the matter was pushed by staff, they would have to physically force the inmates into the cells. This resulted in a massive administrative hassle as the situation is considered to be a “calculated use of force.” This required notifications to people in high places who didn’t want to be irritated, a video record of the incident, sometimes delays in count and significant impact to prison operations, including overtime costs.

When the issue was pushed, fights between the two incompatible cellies would often ensue. Some of this was due to true animosity on the inmate’s part; some of it was due to perceived (accurately perceived) pressure from other inmates.

The fact of the matter is that racial subgrouping (usually also gang subgrouping) is in many ways the primary fact of operational life within the California system. Within the system, when a Norteno (northern Mexican) inmate who finds himself at a mess hall table with a Sureno (southern Mexican) inmate, a fight between the two of them will almost always ensue, if for no other reason than they believe they will be punished by their groups if they do not fight. There is a similar, but less strong, feeling from black inmates from various gangs and groups.

To attempt to avoid the issue during intake, many inmates (more often Hispanic, sometimes black, rarely white) will assert that they are unaffiliated. They do this for many reasons. A small number are truly unaffiliated, or at least want to be. A larger number do not want to be noted in their records as being affiliated with any particular group or gang. They are then housed with another claimed unaffiliated inmate, if that bunk space is available.

It then often turns out that claimed unaffiliated #1 is really a Norteno and claimed unaffiliated #2 is really a Sureno. (The same is often true with Bloods and Crips.) The results can be unpleasant. Also, when you do get that rare truly unaffiliated inmate, he will be labeled by association. If an unaffiliated or want-to-be unaffiliated inmate is celled with a Sureno, for instance, all of the other inmates in the unit will believe that he is a Sureno, whether he is or not.  

Like any other program change, the system of race/ gang-based segregated housing could be overcome, but it would take the willingness by the department to deal with the consequences and the willingness of the review authorities (local and federal courts, federal receivers and eventually the legislature) to deal with the fallout.

Thus far, the department has perceived (accurately I believe) that there is no support for dealing with the consequences of a change in the program. That may be changing, but the cost will be much, much higher than the courts and other outside critics believe it will be.

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