One of the last bastions of racial segregation will be breached next month, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Trailing most U.S. states, California will start fully integrating its prison cells beginning July 1. The change has both inmates and prison guards nervous about racial violence in the largest state prison system. They depict race relations behind bars as a delicate truce in which one transgression can trigger a riot. Among the most diverse prison systems, California’s overcrowded prisons also have entrenched prison-gang cultures. Integration of prison cells will test the state’s ability to tackle that problem peacefully. Officials behind the change point to research that suggests any uptick in violence would be short-lived, followed by longer-term benefits.
“In the other states where this has been done, it has assisted in gang management, reduced violence, reduced racial tension. And it helps with breaking down prejudicial barriers and reflects community norms,” says Terry Thornton, corrections department spokeswoman. The policy change comes in response to a legal challenge that rose to the Supreme Court in 2004. No more than three states still have segregated prisons. Under the new rules, each incoming prisoner will be screened to determine gang affiliations, past racial violence, and willingness to integrate. Members of rival gangs won’t be lumped together, so there won’t be a member of the Mexican Mafia, for instance, sharing a 5-by-9-foot cell with someone from the Aryan Brotherhood.