Inmates weigh in on proposed desegregation

Inside Folsom Prison
By: Raheem Hosseini, Telegraph Correspondent
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Inside a small, drab administration room deep within Folsom State Prison, three convicts make the self-evident case that incarceration stinks. Ostensibly there to talk about a new, tentative prison cell desegregation program, inmates Larry Jay, Gregory “Ham” Hamilton and Phil LaPat spend a good chunk of the scheduled interview articulating their thoughts on why California’s prison system is broken. On the surface, the assertions aren’t so different from what one might hear from prison reform advocates or even some state lawmakers. Overcrowding, schizophrenic parole policies and the loss of rehabilitation programs all rank high on these convicts’ lists of grievances. What’s different is the criticisms aren’t coming from politicians, academics or commentators, but from those directly affected by the decisions. Needless to say, these men aren’t without self-interest. “We’re not asking you to help us get out of here,” said Jay, 62, a self-described “lifer” who’s well into his third decade behind bars. “I am!” Hamilton interjected, before breaking into a sharp laugh. Outside the room, a parole board is weighing the rehabilitative accomplishments of a group of nervous convicts against concerns for public safety and victims’ rights. The results of their hearings weren't available at press time. Jay and Hamilton, both convicted on decades-old murders, are different in many ways. Jay is white, claims little more than a grade school education, and grew up in a small, monochromatic Oklahoma town. Jay was committing a robbery when things went awry and he killed a man. Thirty-five years later, he’s a member of the prison’s Men’s Advisory Council, a liaison group between inmates and prison staff. When integration talk rankled the general population, Jay and other council members helped quell the “uproar” by arranging town hall-style meetings between prisoners and officials. “It’s way too early to tell how this is going to pan out,” he said of the cell integration program. “Ask me again in six months.” The inmates, he adds, ever distrustful of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, remain wary there will be more to the policy than simply removing impediments to color-blind housing. But so far those fears have been unwarranted. “You don’t have a real story here,” Hamilton said. Jay wears his white hair combed back, speaks with a country singer’s gravelly voice and sports a noticeable wedding band, something he acquired after being sent to prison. By contrast, Hamilton, 61, is African American and has a slighter build with a professorial thatch of facial hair. He’s pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in religious studies and appropriately takes on a more scholarly approach. “Prison is polarized on a whole lot of levels, be it gangs, race or education,” he said. “Unlike other states, California is a gang-oriented-driven type of system.” He says the prison system’s unofficial segregation policy only empowered racially delineated gangs that were already self-segregating under threat of violence. As a result, he and Jay say younger inmates, typically still tied to gangs or vulnerable to them, have a harder time plotting their own course in prison. Prison spokesman Lt. Anthony Gentile agrees. “Not everyone can get away with that,” Gentile said of having a laissez-faire attitude toward race. “Now a young guy (coming into prison), like most people, you have to answer to someone.” Maybe that's why the 38-year-old LaPat remains mostly quiet during the interview. A fellow member of the Men’s Advisory Council, LaPat seems content to let his elders discuss prison politics as he politely waits for the interview to end. He has five years left on a drug charge bit. Why not spend an hour of that in a quiet office, even if it is behind bars?