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Racial Segregation in Correctional Facilities

In 2005, Johnson V. California occurred, requiring scrutiny to be applied to cases of racial segregation within correctional facilities. Prior to this case, it was common practice to house those living in these facilities based on their race; for example, all white offenders would be housed in the same living quarters as each other away from other races/ethnicities. Johnson was living in a California correctional facility when he realized that other offenders were being racially segregated and he argued that this violated the equal protection clause as stated by the eighth amendment. The facility argued that it was equal segregation since all the inmates were segregated, rather than just one group. In the end, Johnson won and the court emphasized that there had to be “great scrutiny” applied to cases where racial segregation was utilized as a tool to determine housing for incoming inmates.

Since then, although this judgment was passed, racial segregation at intake is still a common practice within facilities although it is presented as a safety measure and under the guise for everyone within the facility’s safety. For example, gang violence is commonly cited as a reason for racially segregating potentially violent inmates. Correctional officers view certain criminal acts as race-based, legitimizing the need for racial segregation within the facility. However, there are still cases that did not involve violent inmates; Brand was a Black inmate who requested to be housed with his previous white roommate after serving time in the solitary unit. Brand was denied based on the facility’s unspoken rule that multi-racial moves were more difficult than same-race moves, despite his previous assignment with him. There are many stories such as Brand’s that do not concern nonviolent inmates. The administration’s concerns are not empirically based but rather based on perceptions of disorder and crime and how to best control that. Housing is viewed as one of the easiest methods of control within a correctional facility, so this is the target.

Why is this important? Especially if it’s usually just the residential housing areas that are racially segregated – not even the whole facility?

Not all housing units are the same. If there is racial segregation occurring between units, there is no way to consistently ensure each unit is receiving the same amount of resources from the inmate side (administratively, there are ways to ensure it looks as though each unit is “equal”). Being classified in a certain unit can result in a lack of ability to participate in facility programming or resource allocation. Administration can choose which populations are in the more favorable units.

It can also actually encourage hostility and racist acts between prisoners who did not previously hold those ideals. There are numerous accounts of inmates who once arriving in a facility, felt as though they had to act in a racist way to survive based on the pre-constructed segregated world that administrators created. One former inmate noted that he felt as though he had to only socialize with the other Hispanic inmates and outcast any other race based on the environment when he arrived. Older inmates had already grown accustomed to these administrated ideals, so the cycle of racism continued to create divides among inmates. This can be incredibly intentional as encouraging hostility and negative emotions between the majority of prisoners can help dissuade resistance and continue the “order” of correctional facilities (see here for information on resistance and its potential impact within facilities). This intentional construction also reflects a more general desire by white supremacists for legalized segregation in the real world outside of correctional facilities.

Not all facilities engage in racial segregation anymore; however, due to its history of prevalence within the correctional system and due to unofficial acts that have been uncovered since the 2005 Johnson decision, attention is still needed in this area. For any amount of time, racial segregation can have profound negative impacts on those housed within these facilities.

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12 ago 2022

The Californian correctional facilities are segregated on gang affiliation of which are almost 100% based on race. This will never change as long as there are prison gangs, and as most of these organisations exist outside as well as in, as long as gangs exist in society.

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