At San Quentin, Fears Raised Over Integration

California prisons face a court order to end a decades-long practice of separating inmates by race. At San Quentin, the process has already begun. Inmates and prison officials gathered to air their concerns about how violence may increase.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Last month, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported on overcrowded conditions and racial tensions at San Quentin State Prison in California. Today, we're going to hear about the challenge of integrating that prison.

A California court has mandated that people of different races must share cells in prisons across the state. Yesterday, San Quentin's warden held a meeting with hundreds of prisoners who are opposed to the idea, and reporter Nancy Mullane was there.

NANCY MULLANE: The inmates, all wearing standard light blue shirts and dark blue jeans, filled the pews of San Quentin's Protestant chapel in self-segregated rows - Hispanic, white, black.

Up on a low stage at the front of the sanctuary, prison officials and uniformed guards sit in chairs facing the inmates. For about a half an hour, a black inmate standing at a microphone reads questions from the prisoners printed out on a piece of paper.

Unidentified Man: If I currently have a cellmate from my race, will the new policy separate us?

Mr. MAX LEMON (Chief Deputy Warden, Folsom State Prison): We will not issue immediate bed moves to everyone on the integration policy. The policy says that this is to be applied through attrition.

MULLANE: Max Lemon is chief deputy warden.

Mr. LEMON: An inmate leaves for a medical procedure and we receive a bus from a county jail, we have to fill the bed.

Unidentified Man: If an inmate is unable to integrate?

Mr. LEMON: We will be using progressive discipline to address their non-compliance with the integrated policy.

MULLANE: For decades, the California Department of Corrections has had a policy of separating inmates in cells or bunking them in dorms only with members of their own race. That was to keep violent, race-based gangs separated.

But now, as beds become free, a race-blind computer system will be used to place inmates. With the scripted questions answered, the inmates are invited up to the mic. Their questions and comments show deep skepticism about the plan.

Unidentified Man #2: If I find somebody I'm compatible with, I won't be able to move with him, nor that he won't harm me, rape me, beat me or assault me or something of that nature?

Mr. LEMON: You're asking if you can keep your same cellmate? Don't go out to court and don't go to an outside house, all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man #3: We are elbow to elbow already. We already have tensions elbow to elbow already. This is going to create a lot of backlash, problems, for everyone.

Unidentified Man #4: What if the entire population at San Quentin, let's say 80 percent of us, decide to say no, we're not going to do it, are you going to lock us all down in our cells?

Mr. LEMON: We will convert your cell program to whatever it needs to be to comply with this policy.

MULLANE: Prisoners look around at one another and shake their heads. Out in the hall, Dan Zickwick(ph), a white inmate with a shaved head, says he just got out of the hall for fighting with a black prisoner, and he'll never accept a black cellmate.

Mr. DAN ZICKWICK (Inmate, San Quentin State Prison): If I do this program and all of a sudden something happens and I get sent to another yard, higher yard, these gentlemen over here are going to hit me, period. That's just, you know, we protect our own, and it's just the way it's been for years, and it's always going to stay that way.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

MULLANE: The bells ring, signaling it's time for afternoon lockout. The Department of Corrections says it's going to begin integrating at lower-level security prisons like San Quentin before taking the program to more secure facilities throughout the state.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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