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California: Continued Resistance Among Prisoners and Prison Officials Alike Slows Attempts to End Housing Segregation

by Mike Brodheim

Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499 (2005) [PLN, July 2005, p.22; April 2004, p.40] that California’s policy of housing prisoners in cells according to race was constitutionally impermissible and morally repugnant to civilized society, California prisoners and prison officials alike continue to resist attempts at racial integration.

As of August 2010, only four of California’s 30 adult male prisons – Folsom State Prison, Mule Creek State Prison, Sierra Conservation Center and the California Medical Facility – had integrated housing policies in place which take into account factors other than race when assigning cellmates. Those other factors, set forth in Section 3269.1 of Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations, include a prisoner’s gang affiliation, if any, the crime he committed, his disciplinary history, and physical characteristics such as height, weight and age.

By April 2011 the Correctional Training Facility at Soledad, California Rehabilitation Center, Solano State Prison, Chuckawalla State Prison and Ironwood State Prison had also implemented the prison system’s Integrated Housing Program. Four more facilities are expected to integrate cell housing by the end of the calendar year.

Looking from the outside in, critics are frustrated with the slow progress. “It’s not a simple problem, but progress could be faster,” said Barry Krisberg, a fellow at the University of California at Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. “Going into prison in California,” he acknowledges, “has, for decades, meant getting inculcated with an extremely racist mentality.”

That “racist mentality” is part of a culture that many prisoners, as well as prison officials, largely attribute to the rise and increasing influence of race-based prison gangs. As volatility among racial groups increased, prison officials, hoping to keep the peace, adopted what seemed to be a practical solution – separating prisoners by race in housing assignments. In the words of corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton, “It was just a desire to keep people from killing each other.” More cynical observers however, believe that prison officials deliberately foster and inculcate racism in order to better divide and manage the prison population.

Changing the culture has not been easy. Wherever they meet, prisoners tend to congregate largely along racial lines: on the yard, in the mess halls, in dayrooms and even in chapels. Experience in other states, however, suggests that change is nonetheless possible. In Texas, for example, integration within prisons began in 1991 and, according to officials there, 62 percent of the cells are now integrated and violence is lower as a result.

Michael Parks, a 46-year-old black prisoner at Folsom who also served time in Texas, explained that integrated cells work simply because prisoners have to make it work. “You move into a cell, and whatever race the guy is, you learn to live with him,” he said.
Other California prisoners, such as Ernie Santillan, 50, disagreed. “The racial politics here won’t change,” he opined.

Sources: News21,,, California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation

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