Scott Benowitz takes a close look at the racial segregation in US prisons and how this problem can be resolved in a long overdue prison reform.

In the March 15th, 2019 issue of The Pavlovic Today, I wrote an article in which I mentioned that notably few candidates who run for  offices throughout the U.S. propose allocating funding for prison reforms because they know that this is an unpopular issue, and they understand that if they propose allocating funding for prison reforms, they are likely to lose votes.  

However, as of 2019, the U.S. does still have the highest percentage of our own population in prison of any country in the world, we have a high rate of recidivism, and if more funding is not allocated to our city, county, state and federal prisons, the current situation seems unlikely to change.  

In this article, I will discuss two different kinds of racial segregation that still occur within some prisons throughout the U.S.  I will discuss how this does nothing to prepare inmates for life beyond prison, and I will discuss how this can potentially be effectively addressed. I will discuss educational and vocational programs in a subsequent article.

A Brief History Of Segregation In The U.S. Prisons

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in prisons in many (though not all) states, prison wardens segregated the housing blocks in prisons according to inmates’ races.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended all legalized racial segregation throughout the entire U.S., including within prisons. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the departments of corrections and the bureaus of prisons in every state were required to integrate all of their facilities.  

While prison wardens are not permitted to segregate the housing units in prison based on the ethnicities of the inmates, in the maximum security and the supermax prisons within some of the states’ prison systems, wardens are legally permitted to segregate the housing blocks based on prisoners’ gang affiliations.This effectively results in housing blocks becoming segregated according to the ethnicities of the inmates because most street gangs are comprised entirely of people who are from the same races.

Guards state that this is specifically reserved only for the most violent of inmates and that this is the easiest way to prevent the inmates from fighting amongst each other as well as to prevent them from killing each other.  This probably does effectively reduce the chances of prisoners killing each other. Gangsters will tend to want to remain loyal to their own gang, so they are less likely to fight among their fellow gang members. They’re possibly less likely to attempt to fight rival gang members because they know that’s an easy way to begin a prison riot, in which people will end up getting killed, the entire facility will be placed on lockdown, and quite probably their sentences will be extended.  

However, once again this is far from an ideal solution. By segregating prisoners based on their gang affiliations, prisons are creating an environment that reinforces their loyalty to their criminal gangs, rather than assists people with learning skills that they’ll need upon re-entering into society.

Separating inmates based on the gangs that they’d been involved with occurs only within the state prison systems, this practice does not occur within the Federal prison system.

Racial segregation in minimum and medium security jails

There also exists a second kind of racial segregation within prisons in the U.S., which occurs in minimum and medium security jails.  Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, guards in prisons throughout the U.S. noticed that during meals as well as during recreational times, a sizable percentage of inmates were tending to stick together in groups based on their races, and this practice is still commonplace among inmates today.  

This “voluntary segregation” among inmates results from people feeling comfortable with the people whom they feel that they can identify with and trust; prisoners seem to feel that they’re safe from being assaulted if they only converse with or socialize with people of their own race.

Voluntary racial segregation still occurs in many minimum and medium-security prisons throughout the U.S. today. Prisoners impose this upon themselves when prisoners who are housed in dormitory-style units due to overcrowding intentionally opt to separate themselves from each other along with racial and ethnic divisions.

 As a short-term solution, inmates socializing only with members of their own race probably effectively does reduce the chances of fights, stabbings, and killings among the prisoners.  However, this does absolutely nothing to help these people learn to function as healthy members of society once they are released.

Does It Have To Remain This Way?

People join gangs for a number of reasons, but one of the primary contributing factors is that people find that the social structure of a gang is easier for them to relate to than anything else that they’re encountering.  That’s also why people choose to stay in gangs.

People won’t leave gangs until they have a reason to want to do so. If people are shown that a world beyond gangs exists that they can contribute to and feel as if they are a productive part of, then they have a lot less incentive to stay in gangs.

By keeping prisoners who are incarcerated in a number of state prisons throughout the U.S. segregated by their gang affiliations, we’re creating an environment that is likely to do little more than become a breeding ground for better-skilled gangsters.  The Federal government, as well as all of our state governments, need to allocate more funding for rehabilitation, education and vocational programs within the prison systems, or else our prisons will continue to become “revolving door” facilities throughout the course of the 2020s and the 2030s.  

Even potentially violent inmates should be given the opportunity to participate in educational and vocational programs while they are serving their sentences. This would be possible if there were more guards assigned to the prisons which house violent inmates because a larger number of guards would be able to prevent inmates from fighting or end fights as soon as they begin.  There would also be fewer inmates who are likely to behave violently if prisons had more counselors on their staff who could spend more time counseling each inmate and examining why the inmates behave the ways that they do.

Maximum Security And Supermax Prisons- Prison Gangs

While I am not an expert in prison programs or prison reform; I do know that sociologists have analyzed prison gangs, and there are numerous books that have been written about prison gangs. The reasons that criminals like to form gangs that are based on race are complex. However, the manner in which keeping prisoners segregated based on gang affiliation does more harm than good in the long term is quite simple.  

How can someone ever possibly become successfully integrated into society if they’ve spend several years living in a prison in which some of the floors are reserved for members of specific gangs, and the gangs are divided among racial lines?

Some people who were committing crimes on their own end up joining a gang for the first time when they get to prison.  It should be obvious that our prisons are breeding more efficient criminals, which will continue to happen until people are shown that it is possible for them to become something other than criminals.

For prisoners who are not serving life sentences, and who will be released back into society at some point, keeping them segregated by gang affiliation teaches them absolutely nothing about life beyond gangs, which is the only life that many of them have ever been familiar with.  In most prisons, the process of becoming eligible for parole begins when people opt to remove themselves from gangs, and yet people still opt to stay within their gangs, because they have little else to look forward to if they’re released back into society.

Those who are serving life sentences should still have the opportunity to exit the gangs and to work in prison work programs.  This could be accomplished if more funding is allocated for prisons to hire more counselors to work with people- to sit down, on an individual basis, to discuss with these people the reasons that they’d committed their crimes to begin with.  Such programs do exist, many prisons have them, but these programs are understaffed and underfunded.  If the Federal government and the state governments would allocate the funds which are necessary to expand these programs, wardens would no longer want to segregate housing units within prisons according to inmates’ gang affiliations because there would be fewer gangs in the prisons when inmates would finally have reasons to want to leave the gangs that they’d been involved with.  

Minimum Security And Medium Security Prisons- Voluntary Segregation Among The Inmates

It’s no secret that jails throughout the U.S. have had problems with overcrowding for many decades now.  In many minimum security as well as medium security jails, inmates are housed in gyms which are filled with rows of dozens, and sometimes hundreds of bunk beds.  In some of these jails, upon arrival, inmates are permitted to select their own beds from among the vacant beds. Inmates tend to choose to bunk with other inmates who are of the same ethnic background as themselves.

If you visit some of these jails or if you watch some of the television shows which include footage of these jails, you’ll see that the bunkbeds seem to be divided into “African American areas,” “Hispanic areas,” “white areas,” etc. As I mentioned earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively ended legalized racial segregation in all institutions throughout the U.S., including prisons. Inmates deciding to bunk with people of their own races is not forced segregation, this is the result of decisions that inmates make voluntarily, this is part of inmates’ unofficial rules that they adhere to.  

This same phenomenon occurs in the recreational areas of maximum security prisons- prisoners tend to stay with other inmates from their own ethnic groups during the hours that they are permitted to use the recreation yards because many prisoners seem to feel more comfortable with people who are from their own racial backgrounds, and they feel that they can trust people from their own ethnic backgrounds.

This is a particularly complex issue because when inmates opt to intentionally segregate themselves, they’re not actually violating any civil rights laws. They are however violating some very basic common sense.

This voluntary segregation among the inmates is entirely legal, this is the result of inmates making their own decisions about who they feel that they can trust and who they feel comfortable with. However, this does absolutely nothing whatsoever for preparing people to readjust to life after they serve their sentences.

We do not live in a world which is officially segregated along races or ethnicities, and if we want inmates to be able to adjust to a life in which they can succeed by living and working without being likely to return to committing further crimes, then prisons need to be designed so that the staff are doing everything possible to help inmates prepare themselves for life beyond prison.

One possible idea is that prisons should also include programs in which counselors discuss this issue with the inmates. Trained counselors can sit down with the prisoners and discuss issues about trust, about interacting with people and about the outside world with the prisoners.  

We want to give prisoners every possible advantage with regard to attempting to readjust to a healthy life once they’ve completed their sentences, and by not discussing their tendency to intentionally opt to segregate themselves with them, we’re missing an opportunity to address issues which they’ll be faced with when they return to the outside world.

It is important to note here that obviously, not all prisoners are mistrustful of people from other races, not all prisoners adhere to the inmate code, and not all inmates opt to intentionally segregate themselves based on their ethnicities. Perhaps the prisoners who do not opt to segregate themselves can be useful in assisting other prisoners to learn to trust people from other races.

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...