Thursday, May 29, 2008

California Prisons Prepare to Desegregate

Tanya Schevitz reports in the SF Chronicle on California prisons gearing up to comply with a consent decree to desegregate housing for entering inmates. The state's practice of routinely segregating prisoners by race when they first enter or re-enter prison was challenged in the Supreme Court, which held in California v. Johnson (2005) that even in a prison setting, racial classifications must be reviewed with "strict scrutiny" (i.e., to survive, the state must show the classification was "narrowly tailored" to achieve a "compelling state interest").

The story reports on concerns that desegregation may lead to violence in a prison system divided among racially defined prison gangs. But the real question is why Californian's, who adopted Proposition 209 back in the 1990s to prevent higher education from taking race into account, has tolerated the massive expansion of a prisons system based on racial classification. Opposition to affirmative action in education is based on a the real concern (however unjustified) that such state actions may reinforce racial antagonism. But in supporting mass incarceration, Californians have invested in racializing the identities of tens of thousands of young people (who already have a proven track record of anti-social behavior).

The real solution is to implement a single cell policy in the entire state system. Taht would require lowering the prison population by at least 80,000 inmates.

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