When California prisoners rioted last weekend, the bloody brawl was reportedly sparked by racial tension, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Black and Hispanic gang members battled one another with improvised weapons, injuring 175 inmates and destroying 1,200 beds in a vastly overcrowded prison system. The violence provides a reminder of the challenges California faces as it forges ahead with a program to desegregate its prison cells.
“It’s going to take years to get this done, so don’t expect anything to get done overnight,” says James Marquart of the Crime and Justice Studies Program at the University of Texas at Dallas. California’s prisons have long been integrated in work programs, cafeterias, and prison yards – but the vast majority of its prison cells remain segregated. The state began implementing a plan to desegregate cells as the result of a 1995 prisoner lawsuit, which challenged the state’s policy of assigning bunks to incoming inmates based on race alone. Last year, California started desegregating cells at two facilities. “And that’s the smart, safe way to do it,” says Marquart, whose forthcoming book, “First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System,” chronicles the process of desegregation in Texas prisons. In Texas, 50 to 55 percent of all jail cells are now mixed.