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Why Prisons Can’t Integrate

Joshua Englehart lives and works in Northern California.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that California’s policy of segregating incoming inmates by race should be scrutinized closely because otherwise it could “undermine our unceasing efforts to eradicate racial prejudice from our criminal justice system.”

But I’m a white man who served 37 months at San Quentin (for the manufacture of methamphetamine) and eight months more (on a parole violation) at the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, and I think that the court is well intentioned but misguided.

California prisons separate blacks, whites, Latinos and “others” because the truth is that mixing races and ethnic groups in cells would be extremely dangerous for inmates.

I don’t say this because I’m a racist; I honestly believe that I’m one of the least prejudiced people I know. But prison is an undeniably racist place, and court rulings aren’t going to stop it. Inmates who value their own safety must quickly learn to put political correctness aside and to follow certain clearly defined, if unwritten, rules for survival.

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Rule No. 1: The various races and ethnic groups stick together.

Inmates face a huge amount of racial tension every day in prison. Living in such close proximity to others of different backgrounds and cultures -- and the fact that these people, whatever their race or ethnicity, are likely to be from the least educated and most violent segment of society -- makes minor differences that might normally be overlooked larger and more significant.

If a black inmate attacks a white inmate in prison, it is considered the responsibility of other white inmates to respond. This provides some measure of protection for those inmates who are not members of any gang but who do not wish to become prey for those who are. You and I may not like it, but that’s how it is.

The court ruling will mainly affect prisoners in “reception centers” who are in a “sorting” or processing period before being sent to the prison where they will serve out the majority of their sentences. This includes returning parole violators as well as those going to prison for the first time. Once they leave a reception center, most of them will go to prisons with dormitory-style housing because the costs of housing inmates in cells is much higher than keeping them in dorms. Cells are reserved for the most violent inmates, inmates who have especially long sentences ahead of them and those who are considered escape risks. But until they’re sorted out, all inmates live in cells -- cell living is every prisoner’s introduction to prison life.

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New inmates -- known as fish -- are terrified; they don’t know how they are supposed to act. They have no friends, they don’t know the rules and they have no one to stand up for them if they break the rules through ignorance. Typically, the person who helps a fish learn the unwritten rules that he must follow if he is not to be ostracized (or worse) is his cellmate.

The fish will follow his “cellie” to chow and sit with him rather than confront a dining area filled with cliques, all potentially unfriendly, where any move could break some taboo or cause offense, like a nightmare version of a high school cafeteria. Because so many of the taboos involve race, only a person of the same race can be an effective guide.

If the authorities break up this system and mix races during processing, it will leave newcomers with no protection. The only other option would be to join a gang, which provides inmates with protection from other inmates in exchange for obedience.

The court seems to think that it can change the way race and ethnicity color everything in prison. But it is clear at every moment that violence between the races could break out at any time in prison. While I was in a cell at San Quentin, one table in the prison yard was used by whites; the blacks had theirs over by the basketball courts. A couple of black inmates decided they could sit wherever they wanted and headed for the white table.

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There may have been other black inmates who thought that what these “youngsters” had done was stupid, but they were obliged to back them up unless a representative from the white side met with a black “rep” and tried to get it resolved. But before any discussion could be had, skinhead whites demanded that the blacks leave. When they refused, a fight broke out.

After the fight, the yard was cleared and the inmates were returned to their cells. The whites concluded it was all caused by the blacks, and the blacks blamed prejudiced skinheads for ignoring the proper channels for “justice.” Tension climbed, and the next day a full-scale riot broke out.

Staying neutral is not allowed in such circumstances.

When such a thing happens, the prison is “locked down,” and activities and movement are restricted until the threat of violence has subsided. If the races were mixed in the cells, the tension and fighting would be carried right back there with them.

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And remember, integration could be applied not only to those who most need to make same-race alliances and learn the ropes but also to high-security inmates, the other group living in cells rather than dorms. Those are the prisoners most likely to cause trouble of all kinds, including across racial lines.

In my experience, the current system of segregating inmates in cells is looked on by no one -- of any race -- as oppressive or as a way of promoting racism. It is done for their own safety, and they know it.

This is not about prejudice; it is not about equality. It is about the ability of inmates to survive in bad circumstances. This ruling will strike dread in the hearts of all California inmates when they read about it.


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