Race And America's Prisons: It's Complicated : Code Switch The Code Switch team rounds up recent news about race and our prison system, and finds a complicated picture about incarceration.
NPR logo Race And America's Prisons: It's Complicated

Race And America's Prisons: It's Complicated

The number of blacks in prison has fallen, while the number of Latinos and whites behind bars has climbed. iStockPhoto hide caption

toggle caption

The number of blacks in prison has fallen, while the number of Latinos and whites behind bars has climbed.


After our post the other day about the surprising incarceration rates in Wisconsin — the state incarcerates more black men than any other in the country — we started thinking a bit about some other stories and studies we've seen recently that deal with race and incarceration. Taken together, they help some to explain who's ending up behind bars and what happens to them once they are.

So what's happening with race in our prisons? It's a little complicated.

We were a little surprised by just how many black men were behind bars in Wisconsin (1 in 8), but when you drill down to Milwaukee, the state's largest city, the numbers get even more eye-popping: 1 in 2 black men in their 30s there have spent some time locked up.

Outside of Wisconsin, though, the number of black folks in prison is actually trending downward, and the number of black women behind bars, in particular, is plummeting. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of incarcerated black women dropped 30.9 percent, according to The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates reform of the criminal justice system. For black men, the number dropped about 10 percent over that same stretch.

But The Sentencing Project's study found that the incarceration rates for whites and Latinos is climbing — and again, the increase is most stark on the women's side. The percentage of incarcerated white women jumped by nearly half, and the percentage of Latinas in prison jumped by a quarter. (Black women were still nearly three times as likely to be locked up.)

So why is this happening? The researchers wondered if this had something to do with a new focus by the police on arresting people buying prescription drugs to make methamphetamine — a drug whites and Latinos are much more likely to use than black people. But on the national level, there aren't good numbers on who is locked up for buying or selling which drugs, so they couldn't be sure about the cause.

And finally, there's California. The Golden State has the country's biggest prison population. (California was ordered in 2011 to reduce its prison population because of the overcrowding.) Officials at at least five state institutions have been using a color-coding system to keep track of their inmates by race: Black inmates get blue signs placed above their cell doors, while white inmates get white signs; Latino inmates are designated by red, green or pink signs; and everyone else is yellow. Their logic works like this: If a group of Latino inmates fights with a white inmate, the prison would place all of the Latinos on lockdown.

Those officials don't always know whether someone is in a gang, so they see the coding system as an effective way to crack down on race-based gang violence. But as Christie Thompson at Pro Publica points out, just because someone allies with someone of their own ethnicity during a brawl doesn't mean they're in a race-based gang.

"On any given day, the color of a sign could mean the difference between an inmate exercising in the prison yard or being confined to their cell," Thompson wrote at ProPublica. "When prisoners attack guards or other inmates, California allows its corrections officers to restrict all prisoners of that same race or ethnicity to prevent further violence."

Not surprisingly, that practice has raised the hackles of some groups who say that it confines prisoners who weren't involved in fights, and they argue that it doesn't actually do much to stop prison violence. Several inmates have filed suit against the state, saying that it's unjust.