Prison racially integrates inmates

Folsom Prison fourth in state to enact new desegregation policies
By: Raheem Hosseini Telegraph Correspondent
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Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on new desegregation policies at Folsom Prison. Prisons aren’t generally thought of as the preferred setting for grand social experiments, but a statewide rollout of a desegregation policy that hit Folsom this month is being watched closely from both sides of the bars. As of Feb. 1, race is no longer playing a primary role in how inmates are grouped to cells at Folsom State Prison. This upends years of an unofficial practice by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to shy away from putting inmates of different races in the same living quarters. The new policy has been controversial among both inmates and some prison personnel at California’s gang-infested prisons, but advocates hope the state mirrors the progress made in Texas prisons, where a similar policy was implemented in 1991. How it came about An inmate’s lawsuit proved the impetus for creation of the policy, said CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton. The inmate claimed his civil rights were violated at a state-run reception center, a designation afforded to 11 out of 33 state prisons that process new inmates coming from county detention. “We never had a policy on segregating inmates,” Thornton emphasized. But she acknowledged that, “as a mechanism to keep people from killing each other, sometimes those decisions were made” to house inmates of the same race in a cell. A series of appellate decisions, culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005, resulted in mediation that laid the groundwork for the department confronting its unwritten segregation policy. Thornton said the department conducted extensive research, hired consultants and academics, and looked at other states that had implemented similar programs. In October 2008, the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown and Mule Creek State Prison in Ione were the first institutions to implement the program. The California Medical Center in Vacaville began phasing in the program this past November, while Folsom State Prison became the fourth California institution to enact the program this month. The stakes It’s a late November afternoon inside the stone-gray walls of Folsom State Prison, and the cafeteria is entirely empty. It’s been five weeks since an Oct. 7 riot erupted in the expansive dining hall, an incident in which race played an incendiary role, say prison officials, and one that sent the institution into an extended segregated lockdown. The mess hall, a contained space with a sea of bolted-down tables, is a bad place to start trouble, one commander observes. Walled by a chain link fence and flanked by overhead guard posts, prison staff can put down any skirmish with brute efficiency, as they did that volatile October afternoon using pepper spray and blast dispersion grenades. Eight prisoners were hospitalized following the melee. More than a month later, the prison was still feeling the after-effects as the lockdown was in the process of being gradually lifted. A statewide plan to ensure race doesn’t play a primary role in matching inmates to cells was being met with skepticism by both inmates and prison staff. Reflecting on the cafeteria fracas that started as a fight between white and black inmates, the commander said staff was anticipating some problems in rolling out the integrated housing program, still weeks away at the time. The tendency here, where gang activity is rife and largely demarcated along racial lines, he explained, is to self-segregate and for some inmates to intentionally provoke violence if their fellow inmates do mix with other races. It was an ongoing feud between rival gangs that caused an Aug. 8, 2009 riot that left more than 240 inmates injured and destroyed two housing units at the California Institution for Men in Chino, for instance. That reality isn’t disputed by those responsible for implementing the program, nor is it being ignored, they say. “I can tell you we’re not going to arbitrarily just shuffle the deck,” said Lt. Anthony Gentile, spokesman for Folsom Prison. “We have to use our best correctional judgment. We’re not just going to place inmates in a situation where there’s going to be a problem.”