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Building a New Identity: Race, Gangs, and Violence in California Prisons


Dale Noll


University of Miami Law Review

November 20, 2011


Abstract:     
The California Prison system is notorious for its highly racialized environment. A history of numerous instances of prison violence - labeled as 'race riots' - paints a picture of a system where inmates of different races require segregation to prevent brutal beatings, murders, and rapes. For example, following an incident deemed a 'race riot' at the California Correctional Training Facility, North prison, prison officials locked 300 inmates in isolation until inmates complained that their Eighth Amendment and Due Process rights were violated. In 2000, the Pelican Bay State Prison locked down a portion of the prison following a riot, presumed to be racially motivated, involving 300 inmates. In August, 2009, 1,175 inmates were involved in a riot that officials deemed 'stemmed from racial tensions,' in which 249 inmates were injured and seven dorm units, holding 1,300 beds, were destroyed at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. The media and prison officials point to events similar to these as evidence that California prisons are racially charged.

Jurisprudence has traditionally left prison segregation practices to a relaxed standard of review for Equal Protection suits, allowing California prison officials to segregate inmates according to race in double-occupancy cells. Justice Antonin Scalia, in Richmond v. J.A. Croson, wrote 'only a social emergency rising to the level of imminent danger to life and limb - for example, a prison race riot, requiring temporary segregation of inmates . . . can justify an exception to the principle embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment that ‘our Constitution is colorblind.' This viewpoint is consistent with Justice Thomas’s recommended relaxed standard and judicial deference to prison officials who oversee 'prisons that have been a breeding ground for some of the most violent prison gangs in America - all of them organized along racial lines.'

Reports of riots, popular movies, and prior court opinions suggest this prison system’s prior practice of initial racial segregating of inmates was a reaction to the racial prejudices and intolerances inmates brought with them to prison. Alternatively, it suggests inmates develop prejudices through prison interactions. This concept led to the practice of segregation in initial housing of inmates. As inmates were introduced to the California prison system, they were placed in cells with inmates according to race or ethnicity.

In 2005, the Supreme Court changed the standard to be applied in cases of racial segregation at prisons. In Johnson v. California, Justice O’Connor’s majority held that the proper standard of review was 'strict scrutiny' because the prior deferential standard too easily defended 'rank discrimination' and remanded the case back to the district court for review. The California Department of Corrections ('CDC') at that point settled with the plaintiff, Garrison Johnson, and began implementing policies to eliminate the use of race as a primary factor in initially segregating inmates as they are processed into prisons.

The thesis of this article is that while the CDC claims its policies regarding initial housing in double-occupancy cells focused on separating members of conflicting gangs, in practice it segregated inmates coming into the men’s prison system by perceived race. Research has shown that racial segregation in prisons increases inmate violence, which has the effect of increasing inmate sentences. In California, where inmate populations are disproportionately Black and Latino, this practice, questioned in the courts, is only one example of the segregation existing throughout the prison system. By carefully integrating all inmate cells and eliminating the policy allowing inmates to select their own double-occupancy cell partner, California will experience less violence within the prison, thereby reducing prison sentences.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 45

Keywords: strict scrutiny, California, prison system, Johnson v. California, racial segregation

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Date posted: March 4, 2012 ; Last revised: March 5, 2012

Suggested Citation

Noll, Dale, Building a New Identity: Race, Gangs, and Violence in California Prisons (November 20, 2011). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2015679 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2015679

Contact Information

Dale Noll (Contact Author)
University of Miami Law Review ( email )
1311 Miller Drive
B-349 Law Library
Coral Gables, FL 33124
United States
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