California Prisons Start Desegregating Inmates 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.
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California Prisons Start Desegregating Inmates

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California Prisons Start Desegregating Inmates

California Prisons Start Desegregating Inmates

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This is Day to Day. I am Madeleine Brand.


I am Alex Chadwick. You can find one of the last great bastions of racial segregation in this country in California prisons. Officials there have assigned inmates of the same race to bunk together to keep peace among race-based prison gangs, but that's changing. Frank Stoltze of member station KPCC reports.

FRANK STOLTZE: A group of white inmates gathers around a bunk bed in a packed prison dormitory. The dorm is integrated, but each double bunk bed is its own racially segregated island. 38-year-old Steve Cecala 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.

Mr. STEVE CECALA (Inmate, Tehachapi Correctional Institute): Some guys up there on level three or level four found out that if you bunked up with another enemy, who knows? You could get stabbed up.

STOLTZE: Who would stab you?

Mr. CECALA: Your own people.

STOLTZE: This is a dorm room for about 200 inmates at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, north of Los Angeles. 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 the other race.

Mr. KEN SHERMAN (Inmate, Tehachapi Correctional Institute): I don't live with them on the streets. I'm not going to bunk with them here. 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.

STOLTZE: Powerful race-based prison gangs dictate the politics. They include the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Gorilla Family, Nuestra Familia, and Mexican Mafia. This 47-year-old African-American inmate, who asked not to be identified, says animosities run deep.

Unidentified Man #1 (Inmate, Tehachapi Correctional Institute): You got a lot of people that are scarred up, some dead, and you want us to get along? No. That's not going to happen. We've got mental scars that go along with that.

STOLTZE: Mental scars, he says, that can't be erased. Like many inmates, he predicts integration will bring more violence in an environment where you're expected to jump in to any interracial fight on the side of your race. Prison officials downplay the possibility of violence as they begin in the next few months to desegregate housing at the state's 33 prisons. Terry Thornton is a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Ms. TERRY THORNTON (Spokeswoman, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): We're very optimistic that this is going to be a good thing, and it is the right thing to do. It reflects community values. Inmates cannot continue to just live their lives by the rules in the warped ideology of prison gangs.

(Soundbite of instructional video)

Unidentified Man #2: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is starting a new program known as the Integrated Housing Program.

STOLTZE: Prison officials have spent the last year preparing the state's 150,000 male inmates to integrate. Female inmates already are integrated. They've handed out brochures and shown them this video that explains a new inmate coding system.

(Soundbite of instructional video)

Unidentified Man #2: This code will show whether an inmate is eligible to be housed with inmates of all races, only with inmates of certain races, or only with inmates of his own race.

STOLTZE: Anyone who's been involved interracial violence or gangs will remain segregated. At some high security high prisons, that's half the population.

(Soundbite of instructional video)

Unidentified Man #2: Inmates who are deemed eligible to participate in the integrated housing program but refuse to accept an integrated housing assignment will be subjected to disciplinary action.

STOLTZE: Disciplinary action can range from loss of privileges to solitary confinement. The video features clips from some of the handful of prisoners who have already been placed in integrated housing.

(Soundbite of instructional video)

Unidentified Man #3: It's been working real well.

Unidentified Man #4: Of course, at first it's not easy, but you have to adjust.

Unidentified Man #5: It took some time, but I was raised to see people for who they are and not for what they are.

STOLTZE: 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 up-tick, 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. Department of Corrections Gang Investigator Michael Ruff says, once you get to higher security prisons, it will be harder.

Mr. MICHAEL RUFF (Gang Investigator, Department of Corrections): I think, in your lower-level institutions, you won't have as many problems because the gangs don't have as much influence. But when you get into the areas where inmates are doing a longer term, then their influence is much stronger.

STOLTZE: Author Tony Rafael wrote "The Mexican Mafia." The gang is considered the most powerful in California prisons. Rafael warns breaking its grip won't be easy.

Mr. TONY RAFAEL (Author, "The Mexican Mafia"): The Mexican Mafia virtually controls every aspect of prison. They control who gets assignments to what jobs. They not so much coerce the prison guards, but they let the prisons guards know that to maintain the peace, certain people should be celled with other people.

STOLTZE: For inmates, Rafael says it's often safer to follow the Mexican Mafia's rules.

Mr. RAFAEL: 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 your crime, or you get more time in jail. If you break the Mexican Mafia rules, you might be killed.

STOLTZE: 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. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice has long worked in gang intervention in Los Angeles.

Ms. CONNIE RICE (Civil Rights Attorney): You have prison gangs that are exerting enormous influence on the streets now. That didn't used to be. It used to be prison gangs, their jurisdiction ended at the prison walls, and what it means is that the highly racialized prison gang culture is now starting to infect street gang culture.

STOLTZE: The culture infects local lockups, too. Two years ago, LA 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.

Ms. RICE: This is a corrections system that can't even deliver healthcare. 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.

STOLTZE: California has little choice in the matter, with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling effectively mandating integration. And there's some inside the prisons today who welcome the change.

Mr. RAUL PINEDA (Inmate, Tehachapi Correctional Institute): Yeah, why not? I'm all for it.

STOLTZE: 42-year-old Raul Pineda stands outside a dorm at California Correctional Institution. He calls the gangs racial rules ridiculous.

Mr. PINEDA: You can learn from one another. I think once it gets started, and they see that this isn't bad at all, man, you'll like it. They're so used to being isolated. That's what they know.

STOLTZE: For California prison inmates, racially segregated housing is all they've ever known. For NPR News, I'm Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles. COST: $00.00

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