Racial segregation seems to be standard practice in prison. Prisoners are assigned to cells or cell block based on their race. Separating prisoners by race is deemed necessary for safety, to prevent inmate violence and appease inmates. The use of racial classifications has sparked debates on the Constitution, safety, and the potential impact on criminal dynamics. How widespread is racial segregation and why does it happen?
Racial classifications are inherently suspect and subject to strict scrutiny, even in the prison context. See Johnson v. California (U.S. 2005). The need for safety and discipline is often used to justify racial classifications in prisons. Keeping order and preventing conflicts inside prisons are compelling government interests. Any racial segregation policy or practice must be narrowly tailored to achieve compelling government interests.
Practically, racial classifications affect various aspects of life in prisons, like where people stay, what work they do, and other logistical details. There may be a difference between written rules and how things really happen inside prisons. To truly understand the nature and impact of racial classifications, we need to look at how they play out in real life within correctional facilities.
A suggested research project aims to dig deeper into this issue. Surveying prison officials across the country could help us understand how racial classifications are used in different prison settings. Surveying inmates would be useful to compare their experiences against official policies.
Racial segregation in prisons is viewed as a way to prevent gang violence. Gangs are organized along racial lines. The idea is, gangs of one race will not fight gangs other other races if inmates are segregated into different cell blocks by race. There is a certain logic to this practice, but it may have significant long term consequences that make prisons, and general society, less safe. Prisons have become the social hub of gang life. Within racially segregated cell blocks, gangs remain organized; they are able to recruit and indoctrinate new members. These criminal organizations are sheltered and fed with public resources. Racial segregation, then, may perpetuate the safety and discipline problems it purports to address. Rather than support and strengthen criminal gangs that prey on society, the state should direct its policies and resources toward the disintegration and decline of gangs.
By critically examining the Johnson v. California decision, exploring how racial classifications work in practice, and suggesting research avenues, this blog post hopes to encourage a deeper understanding of the intricate relationship between race, justice, and safety within the American prison system.