California prisons are one of last, and strongest, bastions of racial segregation in America. For decades, corrections officials have bunked inmates of the same race together to keep the peace among race-based prison gangs. That's about to change as the nation's largest prison system prepares to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned the practice as unconstitutional. Inmates and guards fear the change will prompt an outburst of racial violence. KPCC's Frank Stoltze visited the state prison in Tehachapi.
Frank Stoltze: A group of white inmates gathers around a bunk bed in a packed prison dormitory. The dorm is integrated. But each double bunk bed is its own racially-segregated island. Thirty-eight-year-old Steve Cecala is serving time for drug possession. He says he has no problem with blacks or Hispanics. But he knows the consequences of bunking with them.
Steve Cecala: Some guys up there at level three or level four found out that you bunked up with another, I mean, who knows, you could get stabbed up.
Stoltze: Who would stab you?
Cecala: Your own people.
Stoltze: This is a dorm room for about 200 inmates at California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, north of Los Angeles. Ken Sherman is what's known as the "mac rep" for white inmates here. He settles disputes with the black and Hispanic "mac reps," and metes out discipline for whites who break the rules. Those rules include no eating or playing cards with members of another race.
Ken Sherman: I don't live with them on the streets. I'm not going to bunk with them here. And same thing with them: they're not going to bunk with me. We have two different sets of rules and politics that we go by.
Stoltze: Powerful prison gangs – the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Gorilla Family, the Mexican Mafia &nash; dictate those politics. This 47-year-old African-American inmate, who asked not to be identified, says animosities run deep.
Inmate: You got a lot of people that scarred up, some dead, and you want us to get along? No, that's not going to happen. We've got mental scars that go along with that.
Stoltze: Mental scars, he says, that can't be erased. Like many inmates, he predicts that integration will generate more violence in an environment where you're expected to jump into any interracial fight on the side of your race.
Prison officials downplay the possibility of violence as they begin in the next few months to desegregate housing at the state's 33 prisons. Terry Thornton is a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Terry Thornton: We're very optimistic that this is going to be a good thing. And it is the right thing to do. It reflects community values. Inmates cannot continue to just live their lives by the rules and the warped ideology of prison gangs.
Announcer: The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is starting a new program, known as the integrated housing program. The purpose of this program...
Stoltze: Prison officials have spent a year preparing the state's 150,000 male inmates to integrate. Female inmates already are integrated. Authorities have handed out brochures and shown this video that explains a new inmate coding system.
Announcer: This code will show whether an inmate is eligible to be housed with inmates of all races, only with inmates of certain races, or only with inmates of his own race.
Stoltze: Anyone who's been involved in interracial violence or gangs will remain segregated. That's half the population at some high-security prisons. Refusing to integrate can result in loss of privileges or even solitary confinement. The video features clips from a few prisoners who already occupy integrated housing.
Inmate 1: It's been working real well.
Inmate 2: Of course at first it's not easy. But, you have to adjust.
Inmate 3: It took some time, but I always, I was raised to see people for who they are, and not for what they are, so it was kind of like...
Stoltze: These optimistic appraisals aside, prison officials acknowledge that they face a huge challenge safely integrating inmates who live in an environment dominated by racial fear and suspicion. One reason the stakes are so high in this effort to break down the prison gangs is that their influence has grown in recent years. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice has long worked in gang intervention in Los Angeles.
Connie Rice: You have prison gangs that are exerting enormous influence on the streets now. That didn't used to be. It used to be prison gangs, their jurisdiction ended at the prison walls. And what it means is that the highly racialized prison gang culture is now starting to infect street gang culture.
Stoltze: Rice, a member of the Southern California Public Radio board, wonders whether the state's prison system is up to the task of integration.
Rice: This is a corrections system that can't even deliver health care. This is a corrections system that is on the verge of catastrophic failure, to the point that a panel of federal judges is considering taking it over entirely.
Stoltze: California has little choice in the matter, now that the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling has mandated integration. At least one inmate says he welcomes the change.
Raul Pineda: Yeah, why not? I'm up for it.
Stoltze: Outside a dorm at California Correctional Institution, 42-year-old Raul Pineda says the longstanding racial rules are "ridiculous."
Pineda: You can learn from one another. I think once it gets started, and they see that this isn't bad at all, man, they'll like it. They're so used to being isolated. That's what they know.
Stoltze: Racially segregated housing is all many California prison inmates have ever known.