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By Jill Stewart
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On April 3, two shank-brandishing members of the Southern California–based Surenos gang charged into the offices of the California Correctional Institute, Tehachapi’s state prison. Though the office is kept open to allow prisoners in the yard to enter and air grievances, it’s usually calm enough to catch up on paperwork. But not on this day.
Without saying a word, gang members attacked. Their speed caught the officers off-guard, and three were stabbed — a fourth twisted her knee in the ensuing scuffle. The officers’ wounds were severe enough that, to date, only two have returned to work.
The unprovoked attack wasn’t the first violent incident at Tehachapi in recent years. In 2005, a race riot between blacks and Hispanics caused serious injuries to several inmates. Months later, two more prison guards were stabbed during a gang attack.
Stories like these aren’t unique to Tehachapi, tucked into the high desert 40 miles outside of Bakersfield. California’s state prison system is among the nation’s most dangerous and overcrowded.
But as bad as things are, they may be about to get worse.
The system is on the verge of racially integrating its housing — the cells themselves — meaning that one of the last bastions of institutionalized segregation in the nation is set to fall.
For as long as California prison officials can remember, men entering the system were automatically segregated and housed according to race: blacks with blacks, whites with whites, Latinos with Latinos. The rationale was that the practice prevented racially motivated gang violence.
On July 1, that practice changed, as the Sierra Conservation Center and Mule Creek State Prison began to implement a racially integrated housing system. If things go smoothly, desegregation will spread statewide.
That’s a big if. But racial integration stems from judicial mediation resulting from the 2000 court case Johnson v. California, in which a black prisoner, murderer Garrison Johnson, claimed racial segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause.
“We don’t want to create trouble where it doesn’t exist,” says a concerned Tehachapi prison spokesman, Michael Coghlan, “but when the court tells you to do something, you better do it.”
State officials point to Texas, which successfully integrated its prison housing more than a decade ago. Texas’ program was accompanied by massive expenditures for new prisons, something California’s dangerously overcrowded system hasn’t had.
“I don’t think there’s any question that if this policy isn’t handled properly, there is a significant risk of violence,” says Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Officials in the ’90s tried to fully integrate prison yards, largely ignoring gang affiliation and criminal records — a decision that Corcoran says resulted in “a fiasco.”
One longtime San Quentin guard, who wished to remain anonymous, was more blunt with L.A. Weekly several months ago: “This thing could be a bloodbath.”
Prison officials say the ’90s won't happen again. “We’re not just going to stick a Crip in with a white supremacist,” explains Ken Lewis, public information officer for the nearby state prison in Lancaster. “That obviously wouldn’t work.”
“L.A.’s so-called gangs are really no more than loose-knit bands of blacks or Latinos roaming the streets, looking for people of the other color to shoot,” Baca recently argued in the op-ed pages of the L.A. Times, while Beck countered that most gang violence is about “status, not about race. ... L.A.’s gang wars have long been complicated by drugs, territory issues or money.”
This month’s launch of desegregation in state prisons may prove the ultimate litmus test, and nowhere will the test be more risky than in Los Angeles County, which has one of the nation’s most extreme overpopulations of dangerous offenders. Inmates are classified on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being reserved for murderers and violent gang members, including the Mexican Mafia. The state prison in Lancaster is nearly 400 percent over its level-4 capacity. That overcrowding could be an ominous sign, given that Tehachapi, with all its violence, is far less crowded.
Says Lancaster spokesman Lewis: “It is ‘the [level] 4s’ we’re more concerned with,” especially mixing black and Latino prisoners.
Regardless, most of the parties involved support desegregation. Beck, reached by e-mail, says tensions between L.A.’s racial and ethnic groups could have been exacerbated by prison segregation. He believes that dividing convicts by skin color all these years has inadvertently given hardcore race gangs a major political tool inside the prisons, one that persists when they get out.
“I can’t tell you what will happen if CDC changes how they house folks,” he says. “But I will say that inmates get tremendous power from the current system, and the current system obviously polarizes the races.”