Racial Segregation in Prison

Editorial: Racial Segregation in Prison
The New York Times
November 14, 2004

The Supreme Court heard arguments recently in a challenge to California’s policy of segregating inmates by race in their first 60 days of incarceration. Prison officials argue that the practice reduces racially motivated violence. But government-imposed racial segregation should be permitted only in extraordinary circumstances, if at all. The court should strike down the policy.

When inmates arrive at California Department of Corrections facilities, either as new inmates or transfers, they are temporarily held in double cells at a prison “reception center.” When cell assignments are made, the inmates are divided into four general categories: black, white, Asian and other. Inmates are almost invariably assigned cellmates of their own race.


  1. I wonder who was responsible for bringing this case to the court?

    My personal belief is that the CA prison system is correct in segregating prisoners by race. It does help them control prison violence, much of which is gang related. Most if not all prison gangs in CA are race-based. Prison authorities even segragate prisoners of the same race who are in different gangs.

    I get the impression that some people have this naive belief that integrating prisoners will engender love between them. They have no idea of the culture of hate and violence that exists in prisons.

    People in prison are violent predators. CA prisons are some of the most violent and racially tense prisons in America. Intergrating violent predators will only increase such violence and make these prisons even less safe.

    Mon 11/15/2004 2:51 PM

    1. I appreciate Gordon’s concern with realistically controlling prison violence.

      Nonetheless, the state has no more business, in my opinion, establishing caste differences under the rubric of “different races” than the state has establishing religion. By willy-nilly sorting “the races” at the prison gate, California is not meeting even the strict scrutiny standard.

      The compelling purpose element of strict scrutiny may well support racial considerations. But racial is not “race,” and consideration is not classification. Certainly, California prisons house gangs whose credo is hatred toward another group who the gang presumes to call “a different race.” Of course, this turns on gang behavior, not on anyone’s zoological position on any “evolutionary tree/ladder” To all appearances, this tail wags the dog of California’s Department of Corrections, I think.

      California law enforcement puts enormous resources into studying gangs. Urban police build a file on every gang, and its individual membership, too, by continually contacting young men on the street (consensual encounters?), interrogating them for their gang membership. This means the State has or should have gang knowledge of who to house separately, without relying simply on antebellum “taxonomy.”

      Does California look to phenotype (brown paper bag style ) deciding who should be housed where? Isn’t “race” basically phenotype driven in most peoples’ minds (as, too gang members?), just the way it started centuries ago. Would California house together “black” and “white dropper,” simply going by classificatory paperwork? For instance, there was not too long ago the case of a vicious white supremacist who wound up in federal prison — no one had noticed that he was Mulatto. (Leo Felton.) After a while in prison he changed his mind, stopped hating “blacks,” and embraced his multiracial identity.

      The essential concept of “different race” in the U.S.A. is caste, not racial hue exactly. Phenotype evidences this “caste” in the manner of a rebuttable presumption. The darkest Afro-American can flash “white” Hispanic in an instant. Arabic Caucasians can be of any hue.

      The U.S. military in 1948 received orders to integrate. It obeyed them. The Army that I knew in the 1960s had integrated very well by obliterating all the notions of “difference” being brought in from the outside by new recruits and draftees. The Army required these to abandon their thoughts of “difference.” That was enough. The Army made no effort to hide racial truths, such as the colors of camouflage paint that worked best on peoples’ faces, or medical differences that emerged from our (“white”) susceptibility to Vietnam swamp infections, and such. I would think the prison system should be able to exercise far more control than the Army did. But it seems to me that the California Department of Corrections is cow-towing to prison gangs instead of decommissioning them.


      Tue 11/16/2004 8:20 PM

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