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Integration behind bars



California still segregates prison inmates by race. Arkansas does not.

A prison at Chino, Calif., was the recent scene of a race riot that left 175 inmates injured, “a stark reminder,” one report said, “of the difficulty of race relations behind bars and the challenges of desegregating inmates.” California has for decades segregated inmates by race in cells and sleeping areas. Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to the practice, but it continues at many of the California state prisons, supported by inmates and prison officials who fear violence.

Arkansas prisons ended segregation by race years ago, and peacefully for the most part, according to prison spokesman Dina Tyler. Black prisoners and white prisoners routinely share cells. If they get in a fight, as cellmates sometimes do, they'll be separated, but they won't be matched by race with a new cellmate.

Nor are inmates assigned to a particular prison because of race, Tyler said, disputing newspaper reports that black prisoners have sometimes been assigned to a predominantly white facility as punishment. Some of those reports were published in 2006 after interracial fights — described as “race riots” in at least one newspaper story — occurred at the prison in Calico Rock. Tyler says those disturbances were not exclusively about race. Most inmates at Calico Rock are white, and so are the guards, although the prison now has a black warden, Tyler said.

“The staff of a unit generally reflects the population of the area,” Tyler said. “Izard County is white. At Brickeys [Lee County], the staff is mostly black because the population is mostly black.” She agreed that some black inmates may prefer not to go to the Calico Rock prison because it's in an all-white area far from their families.

Inmates are sometimes separated from other inmates, but not because of race, Tyler said. “There may be an enemy alert — an inmate has a beef with another inmate and we'll separate them. Beefs are usually over somebody told something or somebody stole something. Some inmates are put in protective custody. An inmate with soft features, slightly built, might be put in protective custody. Sexual predators are separated out too.”

The racial mix in Arkansas prisons is different from that in California, which may or may not help explain some of California's difficulties in desegregating. Fifty-one percent of Arkansas inmates are white, 46 percent black, 2.6 percent Hispanic and 0.4 percent “other.” In California, 26 percent of prisoners are white, 29 percent black, 39 percent Hispanic and 6 percent of other races. The riot at Chino reportedly began with a fight between blacks and Hispanics.       

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