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Dale Noll

Abstracted from: Dale Noll, Building a New Identity: Race, Gangs, and Violence in California Prisons, 66 University of Miami Law Review 847 (Spring 2012) (124 Footnotes Omitted)(Student Note)


The California Prison system is notorious for its highly racialized environment. A history of numerous instances of prison violence--labeled as race riots--paints a picture of a system where inmates of different races require segregation to prevent brutal beatings, murders, and rapes. For example, following an incident deemed a race riot at the California Correctional Training Facility, North prison, prison officials locked 300 inmates in isolation until inmates complained that their Eighth Amendment and Due Process rights were violated. In 2000, the Pelican Bay State Prison locked down a portion of the prison following a riot, presumed to be racially motivated, involving 300 inmates. In August, 2009, 1,175 inmates were involved in a riot that officials deemed stemmed from racial tensions, in which 249 inmates were injured and seven dorm units, holding 1,300 beds, were destroyed at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. The media and prison officials point to events similar to these as evidence that California prisons are racially charged.

This concept of a highly racialized environment has been ingrained in the public psyche in popular movies such as American History X. In this film, the protagonist, a White Supremacist, is sent to a California prison for brutally murdering two Black trespassers on his property. In a scene where the protagonist, Derek, disillusioned by the cross-racial dealings and politics he observes within the White Supremacists, sits alone in a common dining area, the other White Supremacists look annoyed. In later scenes, he further develops his relationship with a Black inmate, and the movie portrays the other White Supremacists raping him in the shower as punishment, with a correctional officer turning a blind eye. Following his rape, Derek continues to reject the protection of the White Supremacists while his Black friend warns him he has left himself open to attack by other Black inmates. In a Hollywood twist, he never gets attacked because his Black friend asked other inmates to leave him alone.

Is this a realistic portrayal of California prison life? The likelihood of a swastika-tattooed White Supremacist suddenly denouncing his ways because three years of prison showed him the truth about racial prejudice seems to stretch the imagination. Do inmates truly self-segregate in an effort to protect themselves? Are inmates in California prisons innately racist, or is there something about California prisons which creates racial struggle, requiring inmate segregation? Are California prison gangs an extension of inmate prejudice, increasing the risk of violence? These are some of the questions explored in this article.

Jurisprudence has traditionally left prison segregation practices to a relaxed standard of review for Equal Protection suits, allowing California prison officials to segregate inmates according to race in double-occupancy cells. Justice Antonin Scalia, in Richmond v. J.A. Croson, wrote only a social emergency rising to the level of imminent danger to life and limb--for example, a prison race riot, requiring temporary segregation of inmates . . . can justify an exception to the principle embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment that our Constitution is colorblind . . . This viewpoint is consistent with Justice Thomas's recommended relaxed standard and judicial deference to prison officials who oversee prisons that have been a breeding ground for some of the most violent prison gangs in America--all of them organized along racial

Reports of riots, popular movies, and prior court opinions suggest this prison system's prior practice of initial racial segregating of inmates was a reaction to the racial prejudices and intolerances inmates brought with them to prison. Alternatively, it suggests inmates develop prejudices through prison interactions. This concept led to the practice of segregation in initial housing of inmates. As inmates were introduced to the California prison system, they were placed in cells with inmates according to race or ethnicity.

In 2005, the Supreme Court changed the standard to be applied in cases of racial segregation at prisons. In Johnson v. California, Justice O'Connor's majority held that the proper standard of review was strict scrutiny because the prior deferential standard too easily defended rank discrimination and remanded the case back to the district court for review. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) at that point settled with the plaintiff, Garrison Johnson, and began implementing policies to eliminate the use of race as a primary factor in initially segregating inmates as they are processed into prisons.

The thesis of this article is that while the CDC claims its policies regarding initial housing in double-occupancy cells focused on separating members of conflicting gangs, in practice it segregated inmates coming into the men's prison system by perceived race. Research has shown that racial segregation in prisons increases inmate violence, which has the effect of increasing inmate sentences. In California, where inmate populations are disproportionately Black and Latino, this practice, questioned in the courts, is only one example of the segregation existing throughout the prison system. By carefully integrating all inmate cells and eliminating the policy allowing inmates to select their own double-occupancy cell partner, California will experience less violence within the prison, thereby reducing prison sentences.

Part II provides a background of the racialized nature of the California prison system and an introduction to how racial, ethnic, and gang identities are socially constructed in a negotiated settlement between the inmates, the correctional officers, and the Department of Corrections. It explores the concept of racially motivated violence and inmate uprisings prompted by poor prison conditions, provides an overview of the Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. California, and provides an overview of the proposed processes for categorization of inmates for housing purposes. Finally, the section reviews the equal status contact theory in the impact of integration in the Texas prison system as a comparison. Part III is an analysis of the housing process, assisting the reader in understanding the recommended solutions. The conclusion, Part IV, outlines the author's proposal for Department officials to complete the initial housing integration policy rollout throughout the system, followed by a change in policy preventing inmate-initiated cell moves. The Department should implement institution-wide desegregation policies to facilitate the benefits derived from integrated prisons. In doing so, inmates will engage in less violent actions and thus serve shorter sentences, ultimately saving the cash-strapped California government money.