For decades, corrections officials assigned inmates of the same race to bunk together to keep the peace among race-based prison gangs. That's about to change as the prison system prepares to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively deemed the practice unconstitutional.
A group of white inmates gathers around a bunk bed in a packed prison dormitory at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, north of Los Angeles. The dorm is integrated. But each double bunk bed is its own racially segregated island.
Steve Cecala, 38, is serving time for drug possession. He says he has no problem with blacks or Hispanics, but he knows the consequences of bunking with them.
"If some guys up there at Level Three or Level Four found out that you bunked up with another, I mean, who knows?" he says. "You could get stabbed up.
"[By] your own people," he adds.
Ken Sherman is what's known as the "mac rep" for white inmates here. He settles disputes with the black and Hispanic "mac reps" and metes out discipline for whites who break the rules — rules that include no eating or playing cards with members of another race.
"I don't live with them on the streets. I'm not going to bunk with them here," he says. "And same thing with them: They're not going to bunk with me. We have two different sets of rules and politics that we go by."
Powerful race-based prison gangs dictate the politics of prison life. They include the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, Nuestra Familia and Mexican Mafia.
"You got a lot of people that [are] scarred up, some dead, and you want us to get along? No, that's not gonna happen," says a 47-year-old black inmate, who asked not to be identified. "We've got mental scars that go along with that."
Those mental scars can't be erased, he says. Like many inmates, he predicts integration will bring more violence in an environment where you're expected to jump into any interracial fight on the side of your race.
For decades, corrections officials assigned inmates of the same race to bunk together to keep the peace among race-based prison gangs. Then in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively deemed the practice unconstitutional. As officials begin to desegregate housing at the prisons, they're downplaying the possibility of violence.
"We're very optimistic that this is going to be a good thing," says Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "And it is the right thing to do. It reflects community values. Inmates cannot continue to just live their lives by the rules and the warped ideology of prison gangs."
Prison officials have spent the last year preparing the state's 150,000 male inmates to integrate. (Women's facilities already are integrated.) They've handed out brochures and shown them a video that explains a new inmate coding system.
Under the system, an inmate is given a code to show whether he is eligible to be housed with inmates of all races, only inmates of certain races or only with inmates of his own race. Anyone who's been involved in interracial violence or gangs will remain segregated. At some high-security prisons, that's half the population.
Inmates who are found eligible for integrated housing but refuse to accept their housing assignment will be subjected to disciplinary action, which can range from loss of privileges to solitary confinement. The video features clips from some of the handful of prisoners who've already been put in integrated housing.
"It's been working real well," one inmate says. "Of course, at first it's not easy. But you have to adjust."
"It took some time," says another prisoner. "But I was raised to see people for who they are and not for what they are."
These optimistic appraisals aside, prison officials acknowledge they face a huge challenge safely integrating inmates who live in an environment dominated by racial fear and suspicion.
A decade ago, Texas saw a slight uptick and then a decrease in prison violence as it integrated its cells. But California — with its powerful gangs and severe overcrowding — faces a bigger challenge.
The plan is to start the program at lower-security housing units. In higher-security prisons, it'll be harder, Department of Corrections gang investigator Michael Ruff says.
"I think in your lower-level institutions, you won't have as many problems because the gangs don't have as much influence," he says. "But when you get into the areas where the inmates are doing a longer term, then their influence is much stronger."
The Mexican Mafia is considered the most powerful gang in California prisons. Tony Rafael, who wrote a book about the gang, warns that breaking its grip won't be easy.
"The Mexican Mafia virtually controls every aspect of prison life," he says. "They control who gets assignments to what jobs. They let the prison guards know that to maintain the peace, certain people should be celled with other people."
For inmates, Rafael says, it's often safer to follow the Mexican Mafia's rules.
"When you go into the prison system, you're given two sets of rules. One is from the prison officials. If you violate prison rules, you get written up and put in isolation — depending on the severity of the crime — or you get more time in jail," he says. "If you break the Mexican Mafia's rules, you might be killed."
The influence of the state's prison gangs has grown over the past few years. That's another reason the stakes are so high in this effort to break down the racial gangs in prison.
"You have prison gangs that are exerting enormous influence on the streets now," says civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who has long worked in gang intervention in Los Angeles. In the past, she says, the gangs' jurisdiction ended at the prison wall.
"The highly racialized prison gang culture is now starting to infect street gang culture," she says.
The culture infects local lockups, too. Two years ago, the Los Angeles County Jail erupted in race riots that killed two inmates and left dozens injured. Investigators believe the Mexican Mafia was behind the violence.
Rice wonders if the California prison system is up to the task of integration.
"This is a corrections system that can't even deliver health care," she says. "This is a corrections system that is on the verge of catastrophic failure to the point that a panel of federal judges is considering taking it over entirely."
California has little choice in the matter, with the Supreme Court's ruling effectively mandating integration.
Some prisoners welcome the change.
"Yeah, why not? I'm up for it," says 42-year-old Raul Pineda, outside a dorm at California Correctional Institution. He calls the gangs' racial rules "ridiculous."
"You can learn from another," he says. "I think once it gets started, and [inmates] see that this isn't bad at all, man, they'll like it. They're so used to being isolated. That's what they know."
For California prison inmates, racially segregated housing is all they've ever known.
Frank Stoltze reports for member station KPCC in Los Angeles.