Californian jails end racial segregation

Forty years after the great civil rights battles in the American South, one of the last bastions of formal racial segregation in the United States is set to topple, following a Supreme Court ruling decrying the California prison system's practice of separating black, Latino and white inmates.

The nation's highest court said the principle at stake was the same that led to a landmark ruling in 1954 ordering school desegregation - the idea that there is no way to separate people and say meaningfully that they still enjoy equal rights under the law. "We rejected the notion that separate can ever be equal ... 50 years ago in Brown vs Board of Education," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in the majority ruling, "and we refuse to resurrect it today."

The Supreme Court stopped short of declaring prison segregation to be unconstitutional, referring the case back to the federal appeals court. But the 25-year-old Californian policy of sorting inmates by race on admission to the prison system is almost certainly doomed - only the timing remains in doubt.

The case carries considerable significance since California has by far the largest state prison system in the US, with some 160,000 inmates, and has also grappled for the past 40 years with an explosion in violent, racially based prison gangs.

State prison officials argue that because the existence of gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerrilla Family, many of whose members they say would rape, assault or kill a member of a different race given half a chance, keeping them apart is the only way to prevent anarchy.

Proponents of desegregation, however, say race-based separation exacerbates the problem and deepens the inter-racial animus. "Indeed, evidence demonstrates that integrating inmates reduces all forms of prison violence," Senator Gloria Romero, who has been leading the anti-segregation charge, wrote recently.

Bert Deixler, the lawyer who took the case to the Supreme Court on behalf of a black inmate appalled by the blanket discrimination he found on entering prison, argued that the California policy was discriminatory and wrong-headed, since it relied on racial stereotyping to make certain assumptions about inmates.

"You can look at gang membership as a basis for special treatment," he said, "but you can't look at people coming off the bus and say, 'Blacks go through that door and whites go through the other door'. This policy assumes if you are of a certain race, you have a penchant for interracial violence."

Nobody is underestimating the bewildering problem of California's prison gang culture, which is a reflection of and a breeding ground for street gangs in Los Angeles, Oakland and elsewhere. The Mexican Mafia, also known as La Eme, dates back to the 1950s, and is now a thriving presence on the streets as well as behind bars, involved in drug trafficking, money-laundering, prostitution and many other rackets.

Its main rival is another Mexican gang called Nuestra Familia, based in northern California. Although vendettas between the two are common, there is little or no evidence that either Latino gang holds grievances against other racial groups.

Of particular concern to prison officials was the creation of the Aryan Brotherhood in Folsom State Prison in the late 1960s, because anti-black violence was part of the gang's ideology from the start - including a reputed stipulation that killing a black man was the passport to entry into the gang.

Since then, California's increasingly overcrowded maximum security facilities have been racked by spasms of violence, including a fight that broke out 18 months ago in a private facility where black, Latino and white inmates hacked at each other with knives and meat cleavers stolen from the kitchen.

Last year, riots broke out in several prisons, including one jail where a Latino guard was stabbed to death by gang-affiliated inmates.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'