To be honest, it didn’t look like racial segregation. I was standing among long rows of metal bunk beds in a room where 36 men of different races -- black, white, Latino -- live together more or less peaceably. But the setting was a dormitory for minimum-security inmates at the Sierra Conservation Center, a prison in Tuolumne County near Yosemite, and in such places, unwritten rules apply.
One of the rules is that each bunk must be shared by two men of the same race. The bunks are close together. A white inmate could probably shake hands with a black inmate in a neighboring bunk without either man having to get out of bed. But that’s a horizontal matter. Vertically, prison politics require that each bunk be occupied by two men of one race. Beside someone of another race, yes. Above or beneath, no. I didn’t ask about diagonal.
Well-meaning Americans have long debated how best to encourage racial integration. Should government be aggressive in bringing it about quickly? Or should we rely on social evolution to achieve it more slowly and organically? In the case of California’s prisons, however, the informed answer to these questions has generally been
That’s because California is cursed with race-based prison gangs, entities that originated in the state’s corrections system during the 1960s and 1970s. (They include the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerrilla Family and La Nuestra Familia, to name a few.) Because racial violence is central to prison-gang mores, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, has long followed unwritten rules of segregation in the interest of keeping the peace. In Level I and Level II units, which are minimum-to-medium security (Level IV is the highest level of security), inmates and staff alike honor the one-race-to-a-bunk-bed rule. When a bed in a “black” bunk opens up, for instance, only a black person is assigned to it, even if a white inmate is available to fill the spot.
In Level III and Level IV units, where prisoners generally live two to a cell, whites room with whites, Latinos with Latinos, blacks with blacks, and so forth. Corrections officers avoid assigning men of different races to a two-person cell, and inmates avoid requesting roommates of a different race.
But that’s all about to change. In 1995, a black inmate named Garrison Johnson filed suit against the state, protesting that race-based cell assignments were unconstitutional. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2005, Johnson effectively won. Although attorneys for California argued that cell-level segregation helped to reduce violence among prisoners, a five-justice majority held that allowing race to be the deciding factor in cell assignments -- even when an inmate wasn’t affiliated with a gang -- would be likely to “breed further hostility among prisoners and reinforce racial and ethnic divisions.”
As a result, the CDCR came up with a plan to desegregate its cells. Phase one of the plan (training staff, consulting outside experts and interviewing and assessing California’s inmates) is complete, say prison officials, and now it’s time for phase two -- actual integration -- to be rolled out in prisons statewide. One of the first in line is the Sierra Conservation Center, which has already made the switch in Level III and will start breaking the existing racial codes in Level I and Level II dormitories sometime in the next few weeks. I visited hoping to determine whether the state was embarking on something laudable or merely something dumb.
Let’s start with “laudable.” In July 2007, the Sierra Conservation Center quietly made its Level III unit into a “Sensitive Needs Yard,” or SNY, a facility specifically for inmates who (either because of the type of crime they’ve committed or the type of enemies they’ve made) seek out special housing away from the general population. The former inmates were reassigned to new prisons, and all the newcomers were assigned to racially integrated two-person cells. (No one was physically forced to integrate, but inmates are punished and lose a raft of privileges, such as family visits, if they resist.)
According to the CDCR’s Lt. Rodney L. Kirkland, who oversaw the transition, the results have been surprisingly positive. Within the cells, inmates have adapted to their roommates. Even outside the cells, inmates of different races can be seen sitting together at mealtime.
“Before we integrated, I had three riots involving four to five hundred inmates each -- in February, April and June,” Kirkland recalled. “Since the conversion, we get a lot of little fistfights, disagreements and that type of stuff, but no riots whatsoever.” In part, this is because SNY prisoners tend to be more compliant than regular Level III inmates, because unruliness can cause SNY inmates to be expelled from their protective housing back into the general prison population. But even by SNY standards, Sierra was apparently quite tranquil, an outcome that none of the staff I spoke to had anticipated.
When I talked to them, the inmates in Level III offered a variety of views on their integrated quarters, but no one, to my surprise, condemned the new policy outright. One complaint I heard came from Greg Oliver, a 41-year-old white inmate, who lamented that he was no longer free to choose whom to room with. But the issue wasn’t race, he said, as much as culture, age and religion -- factors he felt reduced the likelihood of finding a good cross-racial match.
I was especially struck to hear some inmates more or less praise the new policy. Pacing down the cellblock and picking one integrated cell at random, I encountered a pair of cellmates -- white and Latino -- who were openly enthusiastic about the change. “I was a skinhead for years,” said Bryon Fields, 42, giving a friendly nod to Jorge Luis Gonzalez, 39. “I never could’ve lived with somebody like this before, and at first I had issues with it. But after three weeks of living with this guy, right here, he’s taught me a lot, and I’ve taught him a lot. ... This guy is probably one of the best guys I’ve ever lived with.” Both men have at various times been offered a chance to switching cells and roommates, but have preferred to stay where they are.
It seems, based on the peaceful rollout so far, that the Supreme Court has been vindicated, at least at Sierra’s SNY unit. Under the old policy of deferring to racial fault lines, California’s correctional system had most likely been doing just what the court feared: reinforcing existing divisions and possibly making things worse. Now, under the new policy, far from feeling resentful at being “forced” to get along, many inmates apparently are relieved. I felt that the CDCR was on balance doing the right thing for the Level III inmates I met.
But let’s move on to “dumb,” which was the consensus among the prisoners I spoke to in Level I, which will have integrated bunks in a matter of weeks. (That means that when a bed opens up, the first prisoner checked in takes it, regardless of the ethnicity of the man sleeping above or below him.) We already live together in one big integrated room, went the argument, so why does the CDCR need to take things further and make trouble?
“It’s going to mess up my program,” said Matthew Simmons, a 21-year-old white inmate. Like most inmates in Level I, Simmons wants to join the prison’s firefighting program. (Over 2,000 prisoners with records of good behavior are assisting in California’s fight against this summer’s fires.) Now he fears a nonwhite guy might be assigned to a bunk above him, a scenario in which prison politics dictate that Simmons must raise a fuss. “I’d have to say, ‘Dude, can you get off [the bunk],’ ” Simmons explained.
Why? Because if Simmons doesn’t try to prevent a nonwhite man from sharing his bunk, then white inmates will assault Simmons for violating the existing code of racial separation. This seems to be the worry of most of Sierra’s Level I inmates, regardless of their race. They feel stuck: Either they can refuse to cooperate, hurting their chances of getting into firefighting camp or even getting out of prison early, or they can go along with the new rules and get attacked by fellow inmates. The inmates I met didn’t seem angry about the coming change, just sad.
I had very mixed feelings about what I saw in Level I. From the perspectives of both law and simple decency, letting racial taboos dictate bunk-bed assignments is unacceptable. On the other hand, I doubt that the new policy in Levels I and II will be especially helpful to prisoners -- either in terms of rehabilitation or quality of life. Integrating two-person cells in Levels III and IV has the potential to change how prisoners think and feel (I’ve got to live with this non-white guy, and -- what do you know -- he’s not as bad as I thought he’d be). But that’s not really the case in Levels I and II, where men of all races already share large rooms. Integrated bunk beds don’t really put men in closer touch. (That guy used to sleep four feet to my left. Now he sleeps four feet above me.) After all, when 36 men of various races can tolerate 100-degree heat and get along in a room originally built for 16, that’s surely a sufficient lesson in tolerance already.
It’s also worrisome that the burden of the new policy in Levels I and II is likely to fall most heavily on an unlucky few. Level III at Sierra was integrated almost entirely at once, so that everyone in the unit was in the same position and no single inmate was placed on the racial front lines. Levels I and II, however, will be phased in gradually, meaning that a handful of prisoners will be the first to face a situation in which someone of a different race is assigned to their bunk.
Unlike in Level III, they won’t be alone with just one other man -- a situation in which either man is on more or less equal footing and insulated from close scrutiny by fellow inmates. They’ll have more than 30 pairs of eyes on them. Given the pressure they will face from fellow inmates to resist such integration, this simply seems unfair -- and even dangerous.
Of course, regardless of fairness, the state will ultimately have its way, and California’s prisoners, after some initial resistance, will no doubt learn to live with it. “We always make it work,” prison spokesman Lt. Jimmy Hurtado told me, referring to other unpopular changes, such as banning tobacco and cramming even more bunks into each cell. However unruly these men may have been outside, once incarcerated, they are fully at society’s mercy.
But Simmons’ dilemma -- fight or be jumped -- sticks with me, and the burden we Californians may be placing on him and others like him strikes me as a heavy one, especially given the modest aim of musical bunks in question. I can only hope the long-term benefits to Simmons and his fellow low-level inmates outweigh the costs they’ll soon be expected to pay.