Photo by Eddie Herena

Race relations presuppose the existence of racism, and in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), racism flourishes between inmates as well as from staff to inmates. Some are blatant, others are more subtle. 

The degree and intensity to which inmates manifest racism depends on whether they’re in mainline, sensitive needs or soft yards as well as the custody level of the facility (reception center, level 1, 2, 3, or 4 facilities).

CDCR demographically classifies inmates as Black, Hispanic, White and Other. Hispanic and Mexican are used interchangeably, but often Hispanic refers to all those who hail from south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexicans prefer not to be called Hispanics; they insist on being called Mexicans. 

Black refers to African Americans — Blacks who are descendants of slaves in the continental United States. The category Other refers to Native Americans, Blacks from Africa, Blacks from South America, and all Asian races.

Each of these four racial designations (White, Black, Hispanic/Mexican and Other) select their own leader on the yard, known as the shot caller. Furthermore, under the auspices of the prison administration, each of these races democratically vote for members of their particular race to represent them in the Men’s Advisory Council (MAC). These elected MAC representatives then vote for an executive body among them. The MAC serves as the liaison between the prison administration and the inmates in each yard, addressing and expediting the resolution of inmates’ concerns regarding all areas of programming.

All the races try to peacefully coexist with each other, but interpersonal relations are taboo. The racial groups agree to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. Attempts are made to resolve interracial disputes and to avoid any escalation into a race riot. If any member of one racial group disrespects (the word is used in the context of prison and street vernacular, not the traditional definition), their shot caller will contact the offender’s shot caller, who handles the matter with his cabinet members.

Sometimes the offender is admonished, other times, he may get a beating. In extreme cases, the shot caller and his cabinet will order the offender to “roll himself” off the yard — that is, to voluntarily place himself in protective custody, which requires prison staff to transfer him to another yard or prison.

In level 4 prisons or yards, each race stays with members of their own race — whether they’re walking to the track in the yard, working out in the exercise enclosure, sitting in Chow Hall or worshipping in the chapel. The Whites and Mexicans in level 4 even forbid their members from conducting business dealings with members of another race. The stringent rules against interracial interactions start losing their traction as one goes down levels, from level 4 to 3 to 2 to 1.

Level 2 prisons or yards tend to consist mostly of older men who just want to do their time and younger men, fresh from county jails who have never been to levels 3 and 4 prisons, and thus clueless about race relations. This can help create friendly interracial camaraderie despite Whites and Hispanics, who harbor embers of levels 3 and 4 protocols. 

The Blacks, no matter the level, have a laissez-faire attitude. You will often find them holding non-denominational open areas, welcoming inmates of all races. Most Blacks subscribe to Black nationalism but they do not use this to separate and distance themselves from other races.

Race relations within CDCR prisons changed in 2000. Prior to that year, inmates were housed together in the same cell as members of their race. Since 2000, however, CDCR has housed inmates according to the availability of bunks and the needs of the prison. Inmates are therefore housed today in bunks, irrespective of race, color, age or gender.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Ewallor Ngaaje

Ewallor Ngaaje is a writer incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.