UC Berkeley's Behind Bars

This is an interactive map of the main yard at Folsom State Prison, California’s second-oldest correctional facility.

Folsom became the fourth state prison to racially integrate cells, a process that started in February 2010.

Get a glimpse of the sights and sounds of the yard that few people ever see as we explore how inmates and staff have been impacted by this process.

Explore the yard!

“Don’t believe the hype”

An inmate, who would identify himself only as “Allen,” said corrections officers joined leaders in race-based gangs in fanning rumors about integrated housing. Lt. Anthony Gentile said some officers were misinformed about the policy.

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The work out area

At Folsom, like all other state prisons, weights have been removed. Now, inmates use their own body weight for strength exercises like push-ups and pull-ups.

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"Being an ‘other’"

A Native American inmate describes how being categorized as an “other,” outside of the three major racial groups, enlarges opportunities to cross the rigid racial lines that limit housing integration.

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“Integrated housing is not relevant here”

In the African American section of the yard, inmates play chess and basketball. Curious about the presence of a microphone, a group of inmates approached and sounded off about the integrated housing policy.

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“Clashing styles of living”

Yogi Vaughn is serving a life sentence for a third-strike burglary. Vaughn, 43, said different races often had clashing “styles of living” that made cell integration unworkable. Vaughn was not alone. Several inmates alleged that other races lacked cleanliness and hygiene.

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The basketball court

Sports are known to unite people. But the basketball court at Folsom’s yard is a divided field. Inmates of different races play on different sides of the court.

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“It’s more collective-type thinking”

Greg Hamilton, 63, is a college-educated inmate seen by his peers as a fountain of wisdom. Hamilton said segregating inmates' living quarters was part of a systemic strategy of imposing “social control.” Hamilton is serving a life sentence for murder.

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“They’re walking amongst their own”

Within the oval track at the center of Folsom’s historic yard, the rigid racial lines blur, but not completely. Lt. Gentile points out that although racial groups don’t command set portions inside the oval, inmates tend to stay in groups comprising their own race.

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The track

The track is one of the few areas of the yard that is commonly shared among inmates of all races. Yet a quick look at the track shows that most inmates stay close to others of the same racial group.

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“They don’t look any different”

Lt. Anthony Gentile had a simple assessment of the effect of the integrated housing policy on cells in Folsom: There is no effect. Gentile said racial attitudes in prison are “ingrained.”

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A Close Look at Racial Politics Behind Bars

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In February 2010, Folsom State Prison, the state’s second oldest, became the fourth institution in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system to implement the integrated housing program. The program is the result of a mediated settlement reached after inmate Garrison Johnson’s lawsuit reached the Supreme Court, which in 2005 remanded the case back to lower courts after ruling that any segregation by race is Constitutionally suspect.

But as the integrated housing program proceeds, questions remain about its impact on racial stratification within California’s prisons. Prison officials cannot provide data on cell integration rates or costs of the program’s implementation. Inmates and staff at Folsom and Mule Creek state prisons said the program had resulted in little change in terms of cell integration or race relations.

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Credits

Photography by Guilherme Kfouri
Reporting by Robert Rogers
Web production by Elizabeth Peirce

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“Don’t believe the hype”

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An inmate, who would identify himself only as “Allen,” said corrections officers joined leaders in race-based gangs in fanning rumors about integrated housing. Lt. Anthony Gentile said some officers were misinformed about the policy.

Transcript

“We had been initially led to believe they were just going to go up to people’s houses and just randomly select people out and mix them up, and people were upset about that. It’s peer pressure is what’s really stopping it. Most guys you talk to, you pull them aside on a one-on-one basis, they say, ‘I don’t have a problem with these other races, but you know how the politics are in here homey.’

Some of it was paranoia on the part of the inmates, some of it, no offense sir, but some of it I saw staff deliberately spread bogus rumors because they like stirring the pot. Some of these guys should have been born with boat oars on their arms.

But you know, you got that in every group. You’ve got inmates that were doing the same thing just because they had their own agenda. Some of your more extremest factions from the different races. We’ve scarcely seen the impact from it now that it’s been actually implemented. Because changes were made ... if it had been implemented the way we were initially told by some of the staff that it was going to be ... I was not looking forward to that. But they stopped, they re-evaluated it, and again now the primary concern is finding compatibility.”

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The work out area

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At Folsom, like all other state prisons, weights have been removed. Now, inmates use their own body weight for strength exercises like push-ups and pull-ups.

Being an 'other'

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A Native American inmate describes how being categorized as an “other,” outside of the three major racial groups, enlarges opportunities to cross the rigid racial lines that limit housing integration.

Transcript

Allen: “I’m American Indian, I look white, and some years ago, I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we have an absolute prohibition against being racially discriminatory. So I’ve housed with brothers out of my congregation regardless of what race they are and I get some pretty peculiar looks from guys on the tier, but everybody figured well that dude’s not my problem so they left me alone. Being a quote unquote ‘other’ lumped into this fourth category, pigeonholed in this fourth category, it does give you more latitude.

If I was one of the three primary races in here I would have received, I would have probably had problems from whatever one of those races were, because, people are concerned that if you agree to do it, well they’re going to be the next ones asked.

And they’re not really worried about what you’re doing, they are worried how what you’re doing is going to affect them.”

“Integrated housing is not relevant here”

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In the African American section of the yard, inmates play chess and basketball. Curious about the presence of a microphone, a group of inmates approached and sounded off about the integrated housing policy.

Transcript

First speaker: “That’s irrelevant. Why is that such a big deal? I just said it, integrated housing isn’t relevant here. Us being crowded in here and all these sentencing laws is what’s relevant in prison now.”

Second speaker: “They are not letting lifers out, that’s what’s important. They ain’t letting parolees out, that’s what’s important. Not letting people with parole dates, that should be getting out. That’s what’s important. Integrated housing? Race? I mean, what does it matter if you want to cell up with somebody else? What’s the big deal about that? Whatever race he is ... if we choose not to. It shouldn't be a big issue.

“Clashing styles of living”

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Yogi Vaughn is serving a life sentence for a third-strike burglary. Vaughn, 43, said different races often had clashing “styles of living” that made cell integration unworkable. Vaughn was not alone. Several inmates alleged that other races lacked cleanliness and hygiene.

Transcript

Yogi Vaughn: “Each race got his own style of living, and how it goes, so, two of them, when the integration starts up, it kind of clashes a little bit, because we’re not used to change, so it’s kind of hard.

So I don’t think we can deal with that right now. It’s hard because everybody is in two different things ... this is California, so we’ve been running like this for the longest, so, like I said, change is different.”

Rogers: “What kind of a difference do you see in the last six months?”

Vaughn: “There’s none. It’s the same thing. There’s no difference. There’s no difference, that’s about it. Ain’t been no violence toward us, but if they force the issue it will. That’s real, you know?”

The basketball court

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Sports are known to unite people. But the basketball court at Folsom’s yard is a divided field. Inmates of different races play on different sides of the court.

“It’s more collective-type thinking”

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Greg Hamilton, 63, is a college-educated inmate seen by his peers as a fount of wisdom. Hamilton said segregating inmates living quarters was part of a systemic strategy of imposing “social control.” Hamilton is serving a life sentence for murder.

Transcript

“I don’t think every single individual that is Mexican or white is opposed to living with another race. It’s more a collective-type thinking than it is an individual-type thinking ... and the way prison is designed, at least in California, you got to go with the flow. If the politics of the day says you don’t live with blacks, or you don’t live with anybody, or you sit over here, that’s what you go do.

When you just talk to whites in general, if there were whites or Mexicans in general ... if the politics that’s set by the group mentality wasn’t what it is, they probably would cell with a guy of another race too. But you kind of have to stay with the party line so to say.”

“They’re walking amongst their own”

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Within the oval track at the center of Folsom’s historic yard, the rigid racial lines blur, but not completely. Lt. Gentile points out that although racial groups don’t command set portions inside the oval, inmates tend to stay in groups comprising their own race.

Transcript

“That signifies voluntary yard in-line. So inmates that are out on the yard now that maybe have a job in the afternoon, they’ll be able to access their cell, get cleaned up and changed in preparation for their evening shift of work. Others that choose to come in the yard and stay in their cell and have their lunch, they’ll do that as well.

As they are walking to the area where they process back into the building, you notice that they are walking amongst their own race, there’s not a lot of racial intermingling and they’re free to do as they wish on the yard.”

The track is one of the few areas of the yard that is commonly shared among inmates of all races. Yet a quick look at the track shows that most inmates stay close to others of the same racial group.

“They don’t look any different”

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Lt. Anthony Gentile had a simple assessment of the effect of the integrated housing policy on cells in Folsom: There is no effect. Gentile said racial attitudes in prison are “ingrained.”

Transcript

Rogers: You walk through the housing units, do they look different now than they did a year ago?

Gentile: I would say no. No. I would say they don’t look any different. There’s a lot of racial politics between the inmates that we cannot eradicate from them. These are things that are ingrained in their minds, and we cannot change that mindset.

It was very tense, a lot of inmates believed, much like I believe a lot of the general public is misinformed, in thinking that we are going to basically shuffle the deck of inmates and we’re just going to start forcing these guys no matter what their race is ... race is not a sole determining factor.

If an inmate that’s white and an inmate that’s black approach staff and agree, and they approach staff and say “I’d like to live with this individual,” we’re not going to deter them from that. We’re going to accommodate that move. By virtue of that, makes us an integrated institution.

From race-based to a more complex housing formula

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For decades, new or newly-transferred inmates have been assigned cells based on race. “It was just a desire to keep people from killing each other,” said CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton. “It was never a policy, never written down, but it was done, we're not going to deny that.”

The integrated housing program is meant to change that.

After an exhaustive review of all inmates in California prisons, each was assigned an integrated housing program code.

The code provides CDCR officials a guide to decide how to house inmates.

All inmates are reviewed when they are received by CDCR. Inmates are re-evaluated annually.

Based on the research, each inmate was designated one of five categories, ranging from “racially eligible” to “restricted by refusal.” Other case factors used in making housing decisions include the inmate’s offense, disciplinary history, mental health and length of sentence.

CDCR does not have data on how many cells are integrated, but officials have said that about two-thirds of inmates are racially eligible for integration.

Individual case factors like a history of racial violence and gang association can preclude inmates from being deemed racially eligible.

Legal origins of Integrated Housing Policy

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Garrison Johnson became a notorious name in California corrections when he filed a racial discrimination lawsuit in 1995.

In his complaint, Johnson argued that race-based housing "...effectively erected whites only, blacks only, Hispanics only signs over the portals of the California prison system.”

Johnson, a convicted murderer, claimed that for years he had been forced to share cells with only other black inmates during transfers between wings and institutions.

After winding through state and federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that even temporarily segregating inmates by race is constitutionally suspect and should be subject to tight judicial scrutiny.

The legal opinion stipulates that unless strong reasons exist to segregate inmates - such as achieving prison safety when no other method could be used - discriminating by race in housing assignments, including double-cells, is legally indefensible. That does not mean, however, that the system is forcing integration.

Inmates still have the option to self-segregate and many choose to stick with cell-mates of the same race.

The case was remanded back to the Ninth Circuit Court and the parties agreed to mediation. The integrated housing program emerged out of this, as CDCR agreed to no longer use race as the sole determinative factor in housing inmates.

Outlook for integrating California’s prison cells

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As of July 2010, four state prisons had implemented the integrated housing program. Sierra Conservation Center and Mule Creek State Prison were the first, in October 2008. California Medical Facility in Vacaville was next, in November 2009, followed by Folsom State Prison in February 2010. CDCR Spokeswoman Terry Thornton said there was only one disruption, a brief, nonviolent work stoppage at Sierra Conservation Center.

Moving forward, Thornton said CDCR has no long-term timetable that schedules integrated housing implementation at all of the state’s men’s institutions.

At the same time, Thornton said there are no statistics revealing how many cells in the institutions are racially-integrated. During a count conducted by reporters of a wing of 100 cells at Mule Creek, about 30 percent were racially-integrated.

In Texas, where courts ordered forced cell integration of a previously segregated system, 62 percent of cells are integrated.

Five more prisons are expected to implement integrated housing by the end of 2011.

Visit Mule Creek State Prison

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Audio Slideshow

Mule Creek State Prison was one of the first prisons to implement the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Integrated Housing Policy in 2008.

Two years later, inmates and staff still struggle with the effects of the policy, which was the result of a court-mediated settlement resolving a lawsuit alleging segregation in transfer and intake centers.

In late June, UC Berkeley News21 reporters Guilherme Kfouri and Robert Rogers interviewed more than a dozen inmates and staff and toured facilities at Mule Creek. In one of the housing wings, 31 of 100 cells were integrated with two inmates of different races.

Inmates interviewed were generally opposed to the program and the idea of being housed with inmates of other races.

Other Resources

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