The editors at the L.A. Times published an editorial yesterday praising the Supreme Court’s decision applying strict scrutiny to segregation of prisoners by race in California. I haven’t read the Supreme Court’s decision, and I don’t comment on court decisions that I haven’t read. But, looking at the policy alone, I am appalled (though not surprised) by the editors’ naive view of prisoners, and the editors’ failure of logical thinking.
The editorial begins with praise for these enlightened times in which we live:
The Supreme Court made the right decision Wednesday in all but overturning California’s policy of housing new prison inmates in cells based on their race. Clearly, the state cannot classify people solely on that basis in the year 2005, and it would be preposterous for state prison officials to continue arguing that there is a compelling reason to do so.
It may come as a shock to L.A. Times editors, but prison inmates aren’t always as sophisticated and broad-minded as those of us on the outside. Believe it or not, some of them are racists! Yes, even in the year 2005.
Editors would do well to read the fantastic book The Hot House, by Pete Earley. Earley spent most of his waking hours at Leavenworth prison for two years in the late 1980s. Earley, a former Washington Post reporter, says:
While race relations outside federal prisons had improved in many ways over the decades, the fires of racial hatred still burned as intensely as ever in the prisons. In Leavenworth, black and white convicts segregated themselves in the inmate dining hall and prison officials never housed blacks and whites in the same cell.
(p. 53) There is no reason to think that these words are any less true in 2005 than they were in 1991, when the book was first published.
Here’s a passage from the book that made quite an impression on me when I first read it years ago. There’s some rough language here, so if you’re offended by profanity or ugly racial epithets, you might skip the next passage:
“Most whites fuck up right away when they come into prison, because they try to be friendly,” [convicted murderer Norman] Bucklew said later. “Let’s say a white dude is put in a cell with maybe fifteen niggers. If he says hello or even nods to them, then he’s already doomed. You see, half of them will think he is just being polite and treating them with respect, but the other half will know he is weak and afraid, because they know that a white man isn’t even going to acknowledge them if he’s been in prison before, because whites don’t speak to niggers in prison. These niggers are going to move on that guy as soon as the hack disappears.”
(p. 419) This inmate’s language is ugly — but it is reflective of the attitudes of many prison inmates, who tend not to share the racially sensitive values of those of us who have never spent time in prison. White supremacist prison gang members tend not to refer to “the African-American gentlemen in the next cell.”
Let’s play “spot the logical fallacy” as we read on in the editorial:
[A]s a routine matter, the state cannot rely on such a primitive means of classifying people, even temporarily, in seeking peaceful prisons. Indeed, the use of that criterion alone may be unfairly endangering as many inmates as it protects. Consider the case of a nonviolent convict stuck in a cell with a dangerous gang member simply because they share the same ethnicity.
I agree that we should try to prevent housing nonviolent convicts with dangerous criminals. But where is the evidence that such situations are caused by temporary racial segregation? The real problem lies with the fact that prison officials do not have access to complete information on the criminal histories of incoming inmates.
Without a policy of temporary racial segregation, we will still have nonviolent convicts stuck in cells with dangerous gang members — but now the dangerous gang member may be of a different ethnicity. Given the racial prejudice of so many prison inmates, this is a prescription for more violence, not less.
I agree with editors that we must work towards the goal of more promptly providing prison officials with relevant background information on incoming inmates. But until we attain that goal, temporary racial segregation seems to me to be a reasonable policy that, far from violating the rights of inmates, may actually help save their lives.