Supreme Court: California Prisons Must Desegregate

More than half a century after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education that educational facilities cannot legally be racially segregated, three states still have segregated prison systems. But, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, that number will drop July 1st when California integrates its prisons.

Several decades after the civil rights movement, it’s somewhat shocking that the largest state prison system in the United States still divides its inmates along racial and ethnic lines. Apparently, that’s what black inmate Garrison Johnson thought in 1995 when he filed a lawsuit insisting that the racial segregation of California prisons violated his constitutional rights.

By 2004, Garrison’s case had reportedly made its way to the Supreme Court, where the justices agreed with him: the California prison system would have to be racially integrated.

It seems the Court was influenced by the desegregation of Texas prisons in the 1990s, which led to an overall decrease in interracial violence after an initial spike. But some skeptics are worried that, because of overcrowding in California prisons, the violence won’t drop off after it surges.

Sources indicate that the Texas prison desegregation was successful in part because prison authorities had the luxury of punishing inmates who resisted by placing them in solitary confinement. Without adequate space to discipline many inmates in such a way, some worry that California prison officials won’t be able to maintain control.

Others, though, are hopeful.

According to reports, California inmates are currently placed with a cellmate of the same race for their first 60 days of confinement. After that, inmates are evidently allowed to choose an inmate, but most do so along racial lines.

The strong presence of gangs, mostly formed by race or ethnicity, apparently accounts for the choices of many inmates: to go outside ethnic lines means risking retaliation from your own race.

In theory, California prisons are desegregated beyond the initial cellmate assignment. In practice, though, inmates in the dining hall, exercise yard and recreation areas reportedly choose to interact mostly with others of the same race.

Sources report that desegregation will involve screening new arrivals for histories of gang affiliation, racial violence and willingness to integrate; members of rival gangs won’t be placed together. Current inmates will allegedly not be forced to integrate, but will be punished with various sanctions if they refuse to do so.

Both inmates and guards are hopeful but nervous about the integration, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. It seems that many believe that racial integration is ultimately the best move for the prison system, but may cause small fights, which often escalate into much bigger events.

For the latest news on California’s prison desegregation, visit Total Criminal Defense.