Thursday, August 13, 2009

California riots while Texas prisons long ago desegregated

The above photo from the LA Times depicts the aftermath of race riots at a prison unit in Chino, CA:
It was the kind of explosive violence threatened throughout the state's 33 prisons, which are packed with nearly twice as many inmates as they were built to hold. The destruction wreaked here has served to intensify pressures throughout the penal system as at least 1,100 Chino inmates have been moved to other prisons.
California and Texas run the two largest prison systems among states, but thanks (in retrospect) largely to the legacy of federal judicial intervention in the 1970s and '80s, we've done a better job with many of the problems that give California the most trouble - particularly overcrowding and racial integration.

A case in point arises from the Chino riots, apparently sparked because the state threatened to breach longstanding racial segregation among prisoners. In Texas, by contrast, that practice ended nearly three decades ago, as aptly noted by Diane Jennings in the Dallas News Crime Blog. Quoting UT-Dallas criminologist James Marquart, the author of a forthcoming book on the topic titled, "First Available Cell," she writes:

Though the Texas system experienced a few confrontations when integration began, Texas did it right, Marquart says, by having enough space to house gang members and troublemakers in single cells. The rest of the population is screened by their tolerance level and their size--height and weight--to prevent serious injury if problems do erupt.

The desegregation process actually began in the mid 1960s, Marquart says, when then prison director George Beto saw the changes taking place in the outside world. First prison farms, which had been run separately for black, white and Hispanic inmates, were integrated, then prison units, then cell blocks and eventually individual cells.

Marquart, who worked as a correctional officer before entering academia, witnesed the process while researching the subject and says Texas should be proud of how it was handled. "They did a great job," he says. "I have maximum pride in how it went." But the process took a long time, he says, and he expects it to take equally long in California.

"California is today where TDC was in 1980," Marquart says. "It's going to take decades to get it done."


Michael said...

TEXAS didn't do a better job of managing its prisons than California did. Willy Wayne Justice did.

Texpat said...

Very informative links, Grits.

Interesting anecdotes on George Beto by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:

George Beto was president of Concordia College, Austin, Texas, where I was a student in the early 1950s. Later, he was president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary then in Springfield, Illinois (now in Fort Wayne, Indiana), and ended up as director of the Texas prison system. He died at age seventy-five in 1991. Beto, as I knew him, was a big and manly man who cultivated a down-home style, including Stetson hat and cowboy boots, that was dismissive of complicated ideas and verged on anti-intellectualism. But he was wise in the ways of God and man, and we students regarded “Big George” with a mix of fear and admiration. I can vividly recall some of his rambling but effective lectures.

and this:

John J. DiIulio, who is an expert on the subject, says Beto changed the way prisons are run in ways “that they didn't even start teaching at top professional schools until decades later.” I'll take his word on that. I am grateful for the memory of George Beto at Concordia College, Austin. In later years he would send me notes, mainly encouraging, on things I had written. I think he, too, was glad I stayed. In the language still heard in those distant days, Er war ein Mensch.

Anonymous said...


Remember Justice's house across from Bergfeld Park? He had to put wooden barriers in front of his windows in large part because of his decisions on Texas prisons. Now we're thankful for him.

All my Tyler family still hates that guy though.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure at all that desegregation was a good idea... though it was inevitable, the federal courts would have brought it in at some point.

Still in a perfect world I wish we could go back to segregation, I think it might improve the safety of the inmates.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, Michael, my original draft instinctively attributed desegregation to WWJ and the Ruiz case. But upon fact checking, it turns out the desegregation ruling was not part of Ruiz v Estelle and I couldn't immediately confirm whether it stemmed from another case under Judge William Wayne Justice, who I agree increasingly looks like a visionary hero as we view his career with 20/20 hindsight. I just couldn't confirm for sure that desegregation was his case before it was time to hit "publish."

Interestingly, what he was doing wasn't really that "liberal" at the time. Judge Steger, the first post-reconstruction GOP gubernatorial candidate in TX and Justice's counterpart in the Eastern District, for years had similar conditions litigation going vis a vis the Smith County jail, though Justice was considered a big "liberal" for addressing the same issues in the prison system. As 3:08 implies, he a hated man in many quarters when I was growing up in Tyler.

One more WWJ story. My Dad is a conservative Republican who practiced in front of Justice, but always defended him more stridently than you might expect when he was criticized, even to this day, declaring no judge ever gave him a fairer hearing. After trying MANY cases before him my Dad (who defends manufacturers and insurance companies against civil suits) has nothing but good to say about the quality of the judge and the man, even in private, candid moments. That has always impressed me.

Texpat, thanks. I was unaware of the Beto-Neuhaus connection, though I've read quite a bit from/about both men.

3:08, I do indeed remember Justice's house. If memory serves, his house was also the first place I ever saw anyone use surveillance cameras, anywhere - like before they were common in banks!

3:55, with California exploding over race, it's hard to agree with you. Now, I'd agree our approach has created a problem with overuse of ad seg which needs to be addressed, but I've always agreed with Prof. Marquart's contention that this was a remarkable, positive achievement that's never received the recognition it deserved.

Soronel Haetir said...


Something to keep in mind, only the CA cell blocks were segregated, not the space converted to dormatory housing. This riot may have broken down along racial lines but the space was not changed by the SCOTUS ruling.

I'm not sure what is expected when you stuff double the number of people into a prison than it was rated for, especially in dorms with far too low a ratio of guards to inmates. This seems pretty much inevitable to me under the circumstances.

Even without segregation it would seem much less likely to produce riots if you actually have the capability of locking people into smaller spaces.

I'm not sure which is worse if you have to choose between a constant low level of violence or an occassional total meltdown of control.

Anonymous said...

Texas prisons are still pretty racialized places. Prison gangs and even county jail facilities are organized according to race. Your cursory analysis isn't an accurate portrait of what really goes on behind prison walls. Texas prisoners are forced to survive by embracing their racial identity. You walk into any prison and COs have a visual representation of who is in each cell categorized by race. And on the yards, prisoners hang according to their racial identity even if in their cells at night their cellie may be a different race.

Anonymous said...

sadly, not quite true. My son went to prison as a fairly liberal
non race biased thinker. He is shortly returning to the free world much more conservative with prejudice against those of other races and socio eco classes. . Directly a result of the treatment meted out to a middle class white man by both inmate and officer alike. I have no illusions that Texas prisons have any edge... anywhere.

Anonymous said...

It would be neat to see a study reviewing the effect of desgregation on white inmates. I suspect that sexual assaults against white inmates would be lower with segregation.

Anonymous said...

The first thing I thought when I read about this was that it proves that riots do happen at public institutions, not just private ones.

Anonymous said...

After working for 12 years in prisons (federal and state) and consulting with prisons and jails for another 20 years including evaluations of prison riots (one of which was the NM Riots at Santa Fe) - I doubt that the riot at Chino was driven solely by the desegration policy shift. In every riot I have studied or evaluated, the roots of the riots were found in multiple layers of grievances -- poor (often rotten) food, overcrowding, failure to manage the pressures created by overcrowding, misappropriation of resources by senior managers, incompetent management, chronic abusive treatmemt, management driven snitch systems, excessive reliance on authority to make all decisions, failure to protect inmates from other inmates, lack of systematic controls over gang activity, etc.

When the analysis of this riot is done I would be very surprised if a laundry list of causal factors are not identified.
In California a year or two ago some corrections officers in several prisons were found to have organized cage fights between inmates.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:24, that's a very astute point that builds on Soronel's observation. I was reacting to the initial media accounts by characterizing it that way but the truth is nobody yet knows what set this thing off. All their prisons are ridiculously overcrowded and underfunded, so I'm sure there are many contributing factors.

As for continuing voluntary racial divisions and gang affiliations in prison, I recognize that's true, just as desegregating the schools didn't stop kids of the same race from sitting together in the cafeteria. But the "next available cell" policy imposed by the courts is the same thing California's being told to do now, and their system is so much larger than ours when we did it (back when I was in junior high and Texas had fewer than 30,000 prisoners) that it's a pretty daunting task. So no, it's not a panacea, but it's certainly a challenge.

Hook Em Horns said...

I don't know that I would consider TDCJ as a model for anything.

Unknown said...

Just FYI, the case that desegregated double cells in Texas prisons was Lamar v. Coffield (and the judge wasn't WWJ). Thanks for your great blog!

Anonymous said...

Texas prisons are still racial hotbeds. That's just the nature of the beast. I think the situation in California has more to do with overcrowding and the agitation of by its officer union.


Anonymous said...

Let them kill each other off!! Save some tax money so it can go to the children or victems of these criminals! If you dont like the rules-dont get in the game! I did 15 years in the 70's and the 80,s and I can gaurentee you that prison violence will never stop. Violent people will prey on their own kind if there is know one else to prey on. This is why they are in prison in the first place!!!