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Racial segregation continues in california prisons

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Racial segregation continues in California prisons

SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- In one of the darkest corners of California, a state that prides itself on its liberal values, official racial segregation lives on, impacting hundreds of thousands of prison inmates.

When criminals arrive at a state prison, guards typically divide them by race to reduce what California's Department of Corrections calls "anti-social behavior."

Even when the races are mixed after an initial 60-day reception period, prisoners often interact mostly and sometimes exclusively with members of their own race.

In a state where school children sing paeans to civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks and Caesar Chavez, prison reform advocates argue prison segregation should end. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the issue.

"There are 49 other states in the nation that do not segregate on the basis of race," said Gloria Romero, California Senate majority leader who held hearings on the issue earlier this month. "To me, we should have integration as a policy. That's what Brown v. Board of Education decided: Race should not be the deciding factor in running a prison."

California prison officials integrate prisoners after assessing the risk they may pose.

"When someone comes to a prison and there is little or nothing known about them, because of the various gang and affiliation issues we have had in California, that's a shorthand way to know you're not going to have a problem in a reception center," said Peter Siggins, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary,

"We segregate prisons more by gang than by race," he told Reuters. "It happens that often gangs break down along racial lines, but even among Latino prisoners or Hispanic American prisoners there are subsets within that racial group that would tell you that you'd have to be careful about northerners and southerners and housing them together."

The often liberal U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the issue in 2003 and backed the existing policy.

"Given the admittedly high racial tensions and violence already existing with the CDC, there is clearly a common-sense connection between the use of race as the predominant factor in assigning cell mates for 60 days until it is clear how the inmate will adjust to his new environment," the court wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case in November and is expected to issue its ruling later this year.

A visitor to any California prison quickly notices that racial division continues long after the initial prisoner intake, a divide common in many U.S. prisons, experts say.

Roderick Hickman, secretary of the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency overseeing California's 32 prisons and 163,000 inmates, says prisons only reflect a racially divided America.

"To have an expectation ... that the prison environment was going to stop people from associating with like members of their own group -- hey, I'd be asking for a Nobel Peace Prize if you'd get that done," he said. "If you go into the schools, if you go into our communities, people are somewhat divided into their own groups, so I think it is a big task to say that we're going to do something more in the prisons than people are doing in their own communities."

Experts say prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia also exert pressure on prisoners to self-segregate.

"If you're a Hispanic and Hispanic gang members see you talking to a a Caucasian or a black person, they'll beat the hell out of you, so what do you do?" said one prison official who did not want to be named. "In other words, some of the segregation is imposed by the prisoners."

"There seems to be more pressure in some races than others. In California there is more pressure, you know, by Hispanic gangs. In parts of Texas there is more pressure in the white Aryan Brotherhood-type gangs."

Legislator Romero says the initial forced separation encourages later self-segregation. "You're seeing to a large extent the outcome of what happens because the message from the very beginning, from day one when an inmate arrives is: 'You're black, you go there,"' she said in an interview.

Terry Kupers, an Oakland psychiatrist and author of "Prison Madness: the Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars, said California prisons could improve racial harmony by reducing overcrowding, improving programming and taking other measures.

"The violence crops up along racial lines, so if you are going to fight with people, you are going to fight with people of a different race," he said. "Where you cut down on the violence there isn't as much racial animosity."

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