A Closer Look: Racial Tensions Behind Bars Do racial tensions in prison simply reflect what goes on in communities across the country? For more, NPR's Tony Cox speaks with community intervention specialist Skipp Townsend and community outreach director Robert Richardson.
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A Closer Look: Racial Tensions Behind Bars

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A Closer Look: Racial Tensions Behind Bars

A Closer Look: Racial Tensions Behind Bars

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TONY COX, host:

To continue our look at racial tensions in the prison system, we turn now to Skipp Townsend, a community intervention specialist at the Los Angeles-based organization called Second Chance at Loving Life. He joins me here at the NPR Studios in Culver City. And Robert Richardson, he is the program director for Emmanuel Community General Services in Portland, Oregon. Gentlemen, welcome to the both of you.

Mr. SKIPP TOWNSEND (Founder, 2ndCall's Second Chance at Loving Life): Thank you.

Mr. ROBERT RICHARDSON (Program Director, Emmanuel Community General Services): Thank you.

COX: Skipp, let me start with you because you just heard L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca on how he has managed the L.A. County jails and what goes on there. You spent some time there, quite a bit, as I understand it, both in the 1980s and again, as recently as 2004. The way the sheriff laid it out in terms of racial tensions and fighting, is that how it is?

Mr. TOWNSEND: I don't believe anybody could have said it better. He was right on point with the domination, as far as the Latino Americans on trying dominate, I mean, as far as who can use the phone, what days you watch certain TVs, who has to clean up. It's a large influx of Hispanics, as opposed to a smaller amount of African-Americans.

COX: Now, one of the things that he said, before I go to Robert, to talk to him, is that - these are his words, 99.9 percent get along well, it's just that little fraction that bring the gang life from the streets into the jails and prisons and continues it there and, in fact, escalates it there.

Mr. TOWNSEND: I must have misunderstood, because I believe that he was talking about 99.9 percent on the streets that get along well, but in the prison system, in the jail system, it's not that way. It's a tension that is immediate. As soon as incarceration, as soon as being incarcerated in L.A. County Jail, the tension is there, so it's not getting around there. The guy who might be might be my friend on the street, I can no longer be friends with him inside of L.A. County Jail.

COX: Now, let me come to you, Robert. You did some time in Arizona, in a prison there. How does the experience that we have been talking about here in California compare to what you experienced in Arizona?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, it's quite similar. I think without a doubt that the racial tension, because the Latino population is swelling and has a great deal of influence in the prison system in Arizona, that yes, they - I mean, it is there all the time. I think the definite groups hang together largely based on protection or because the tension is always - could always explode in any given time.

COX: Is it more because of race, Robert, or is it because of overcrowding and that it's a space issue as much as anything else?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, prison is territorial. Space, by its nature, certainly could have something to do with it, but I think that the conditions and time has to do - I mean, if you put 6,000 men, 5,000 men with an average time of 15 to 20 years doing, that's not going to be a nice prison. The way also of what I have to do to keep myself together, have any (unintelligible) to making any sense to stay in order is very limited.

COX: Well, Skipp...

Mr. RICHARDSON: Tension is...

COX: Go ahead, finish your thought.

Mr. TOWNSEND: And tension is always on the rise.

COX: Skipp, is there a situation in prison between blacks, whites, Latinos, whomever, were race actually is transcended were it's not the issue?

Mr. TOWNSEND: Well, prison is a lot different than L.A. County jail, I just want to say that. It's a lot more structured, it's lot more disciplined. An individual who is disrespectful to another race in prison will be dealt with immediately for disrespecting another race. Where in jail it would be laughed at, and if you guys want problems then, you know, then on a riot would ensue. But prison is setup as, sort of as little cities. These are little small communities inside the gate, so they don't want any negative look from the staff or the COs(ph) because they want to continue to do whatever is going on in there that, you know, they don't want to be disrupted. So, of course there's a lot more discipline in prison than in jail. So...

COX: But is there any activity, even in jail, that transcends race? I don't know, church? Anything like that?

Mr. TOWNSEND: Yeah, there are a few programs, as a matter of fact, I applaud Sheriff Baca. He has several different programs in there that offer life management skills and you'll see African-American and Latinos together come and they have the lowest (unintelligible) rate as well for offering programs like that.

COX: One of the things, Robert, that I asked the sheriff was about Latino and black conflicts tend to happen where Latinos and black are located, and right now that's largely in the southwestern part of the country. In terms of racial violence though in other parts of the country, if you know, are the issues the same even between other ethnic groups?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well, I don't want to speak as an expert in that regard but I do believe that, as if to say it, there is a lot of things that are centered around the way in which a man is ushered into the prison system. In somewhat saying that you have a chip on your shoulder because we realize that there has been not an equal playing field of the justice system in the way in which sentences are given. And so therefore, certainly I believe that there could be a tension that corners itself into other parts of country. Based on what we just got through with the federal laws that changed rock cocaine sentencing versus powdered cocaine sentences based on classes more than racism. So, yeah, I do believe that there is certainly going to be pockets of frustration, it is always going to be gauged, and if I got 15 years for something, that my counterpart of another active group got five, well that already has implication of I'm less than.

COX: How do, now that both of you are out and both of you are actively involved in trying to do positive work, you try work with at-risk populations, Skipp? Tell us what you think the biggest issues are?

Mr. TOWNSEND: Some of the biggest issues are these people coming from dysfunctional families. I myself didn't realize that I came from a dysfunctional family. And if I have these conditions that I am surrounded in, I create them as being normal. See once I normalized the fact that, I have dehumanized myself, I have dehumanized the people around me, then I have no value for life. I have no value for education. I have no value for society. And what society would like for us to do is to change the mindset of these individuals, but at the same time society isn't changing their perception of these individuals. So there are no jobs when they got out of jail. There is no rehabilitation in the rehabilitation center. So what do they have to offer them? We are putting them, placing them back the cesspool, back right in the same conditions and dysfunction that they come from.

COX: What do you tell, Robert, the people on the outside about, A, staying out and B, if you do go in, what you have to do to survive while you are in, particularly given the racial tensions that we have been discussing so far?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Well you know, sending them - preparation for prison is one of the things that not at the top of the list, but after a person has got incarcerated and finds himself in a difficult situation, there is such a wide brush across the country. Certainly in Portland, Oregon there has been a real partnership in the - most crimes they are going federal. And I tell these guys mostly in the sense of saying that, why are you doing this? I mean, you might have fail in Portland and you might find yourself in Kentucky, or you might find yourself in South Dakota. And sometime as by design, if you take a black gang member and you put him in a different culture where he wasn't getting visits in the local jail in his own city.

So now that there is a airplane between him and a possible visit that changes the whole dynamics. And that is one of the things I would say but, those that - I have a transition program and it's about going home versus getting out. And the mythology of that to is understand that going home is ownership. Getting out is a rental. So we realized, as we scan this country, that most of homeowner properties a lot have a greater value. And so I'm saying to these guys that you cannot use an excuse that I can't get a job or can't do this as an alternative to try to turn yourself around into crime. But you have to use the latitude of the things in which you have built to make yourself available. And that may mean leaving the state in which you where originally arrested in. This is advocating for that.

COX: Final thing I have, we have less than the minute. Skipp I want to bring to you and that's this, is there something that works inside the prison system or inside the jail system to ease that racial tension? And if there is such a thing, what is it?

Mr. TOWNSEND: I don't believe there is right now. I believe the scales are unbalanced as long as you have a hundred bed modules and you have 80 of them being occupied by Latinos and 20 of them being occupied by African-American, and the scales are unbalanced. And the only way I see to straighten up the problem is to balance the modules, balance the number the of inmates you find when you have larger number of African-American in the same cells with the same amount of Latinos, then these riots don't takes place.

COX: Skipp, Rob, thank you both very much.

Mr. TOWNSEND: Thank you.

Mr. RICHARDSON: Thank you.

COX: Robert Richardson is the program director for Emmanuel Community General Services. He is also the chairman of the African-American counsel to the Portland police. He joined us from the studios of Paletine recordings in Portland, Oregon. And Skipp Townsend is a community intervention specialist at Second Chance at Loving Life here in California. He joined me at our studios at NPR West.

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