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Prisons to Curtail Racial Segregation

Times Staff Writer

California state prisons will end long-standing policies of segregating prisoners solely along racial lines under the terms of a legal settlement announced Monday.

For 25 years, California prisons have segregated the tens of thousands of inmates who arrive each year at the system’s reception centers. Prisoners are segregated for at least their initial 60 days in custody. No other state has a similar policy, state officials have conceded.

Under the new policy, race may still be used as a factor in separating prisoners -- a white supremacist, for example, would probably not be housed with a black inmate -- but it will no longer be the primary criterion, state prison officials said.

Instead, prisoners’ gang affiliations and individual histories will be scrutinized to determine how best to place them to minimize fighting, they said.

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Racial segregation has persisted in California prisons even as it disappeared elsewhere because officials said it was necessary to separate inmate gangs that formed along racial lines, such as the Mexican Mafia and white supremacists.

But the state had little choice except to abandon the practice after losing a decision in the U.S. Supreme Court in February. The justices, in a case brought by a black prisoner from Los Angeles a decade ago, ruled 5 to 3 that the state could segregate prisoners by race only in rare instances.

“We rejected the notion that separate can ever be equal ... 50 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education, and we refuse to resurrect it,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote at the time.

The justices sent the case back to lower courts for further proceedings, and since then lawyers for the state and the black prisoner, Garrison Johnson, have been negotiating a settlement.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will phase out race-based segregation policies over the next two years. The change is expected to gradually bring more racial mixing to the cellblocks and yards of the nation’s largest penal system.

“We will start to create an environment where it will be less dangerous in prison for everyone because racism will start to dissipate,” said Bert Deixler, an attorney for Johnson.

By integrating prisons, “the power of racial classification and racism will start to die,” Deixler said.

“People will come into contact in a more reasonable way with people of a different race and will not feel so threatened or so angry with those people.”

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In the past, some high-level corrections officials had predicted dangerous results if the segregation policies were discarded. But corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said Monday that California prisons have already been moving away from simple race-based segregation in favor of policies designed to look more closely at factors that contribute to inmate violence.

Age, physical characteristics and reasons for incarceration are among the factors that prison officials will be considering as they place inmates, according to a corrections department statement. The settlement, Thornton said, also includes a provision to track violent racial incidents to improve understanding of the conditions that lead to them.

Among the 167,000 inmates in California’s 33 state prisons, about 29% are white, 28% black, and 37% Latino, Thornton said. Currently, once they leave the initial reception centers, many prisoners live in integrated cells or mix in prison yards, she said, and the prison system uses a number of criteria, including race, to assign placements.

Although the lawsuit dealt with reception center segregation, the settlement will be applied throughout the state’s prison system, and eventually all state prison facilities for male and female inmates will follow the new policy that prohibits using race as “the sole determining factor for offender housing assignments,” Thornton said.

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Under the terms of the agreement, the state will phase out racial segregation in three steps:

In March, after distributing the new policy to prisons and retraining prison staff, current race segregation policies will end in state prison reception centers.

Next year, the ban will extend to so-called sensitive needs yards and minimum support facilities -- dorms that house minimum-custody inmates.

In 2008, plans will be rolled out to bring the new integration policy to the prisons, Deixler said.

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Prison officials say that there will be no wholesale movement of prisoners to bring about desegregation. Instead, the mixing of prisoners by race will occur as new inmates enter the system and current ones are transferred, gradually blurring the racial lines within prisons.

Thornton said prison officials are not seeking to meet any particular integration goal. “Prison gangs are aligned along racial lines, and many confrontations among inmates are race-based,” she said. But prison officials believe the new policy will bring more careful evaluation of the various factors that lead to prison violence.

In fact, Johnson’s lawsuit was a direct challenge to the idea that prisoners were safer if housed with those of their own race, Deixler said.

Prison segregation policies are flawed because a great deal of underworld violence occurs between people of the same race, Deixler argued. Rivalries between the predominantly black Crips and Bloods, for example, claim numerous lives on the street, he said.

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Deixler’s client was a black man jailed for murder in 1987 who was not a member of any gang, court papers said. Being housed with other black men, most of whom belonged to gangs, left Johnson feeling defenseless -- unable to form alliances with prisoners who, like himself, were unaffiliated with gangs.

“He was a lone wolf who did not have a prospect for having protection,” Deixler said. He sought an integrated prison setting because he wanted peers who would back him against the black gang members he found so menacing, he added.

Deixler, an attorney with the law firm Proskauer Rose who handled the case without pay, praised corrections Secretary Roderick Q. Hickman for helping to engineer the settlement.

The corrections department leadership was “engaged and thoughtful,” in designing a plan for desegregating prison facilities without compromising safety, he said.

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Johnson remains housed with an African American cellmate, Deixler said.

But Deixler added that Johnson has been promised a cellmate of a different race upon his next transfer.


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