Sometimes it seems as if mass incarceration is magical mirror in which we Californians see ourselves not as we might hope to be, but in our ugliest and scariest forms. That is particularly true of race in California prisons where news of one of the most serious US prison riots in recent years emerged from Chino California, where a prison dormitory was burned down and 55 prisoners treated for injuries inflicted after hours of fighting, some serious enough to require continued hospitalization. The news coverage (read the LATimes) suggests that the conflict broke out across racial lines.
To many, the fact that African Americans and Latinos are highly over-represented in our prison system is evidence of the continuing existence of racist governance in a state with a long history of white voter fear and animus toward Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. To others, riots like the ones at Chino highlight an underlying violence in California's prisoner population that underscores the danger of reforms aimed at shrinking the prison system. But the truth may be less dramatic on both counts, more the product of institutional failure than deep seated racial animus.
My observations (limited) of California corrections in recent years suggest that race operates as a default way to manage risk (for both the prison system and the prisoners) in a system of mass incarceration which has both lost any semblance of traditional prisoner community, and has failed to provide a secure and dignified life within a penal complex to which hundreds of thousands are consigned for years and many tens of thousands for decades of their lives. This basic lack of planning for anything but warehousing bodies has been exacerbated by the systemic overcrowding that has brought the system under federal court control. Lacking a meaningful set of norms that unify all prisoners in a common society, or a prison program that assures a secure and tolerable common existence, prisoners fall back on easily mobilized alliances of race, geography, and immigration status. Lacking a political mandate to develop a meaningful correctional vision, the prison system falls back on race based classifications (a lawyer recently recounted seeing a "no black visitors today" sign on a prison he recently entered that was under a lockdown).
The problem is not racism itself but racism as a default replacement for decent governance.