Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The era of Plessy vs. Ferguson is still being applied to many Americans in the nation today, especially those of us who are in prison or in the poorest neighborhoods.

Even after slavery was abolished in the 1800s, life for the Black race was and still is a constant horror to live with in America. Living in poverty is like being whipped on the back into submission. Trying to overcome those structural norms and struggles of the ghetto has always been a challenge that has landed me in jail or in prison most times.

It doesn’t take a specially trained eye to see that slavery still exists in America. The balance of authority and how it’s implemented among the races is evident. In the fine print of the 14th Amendment, it says that slavery is unlawful except for imprisonment.

In the beginning, there were the Jim Crow Laws and a police system that assisted the lawmakers in locking up Blacks for even the slightest reason. That is still happening today.

The fine line that divides us is so thin but, racist Whites had figured out a new modern way to enslave Black people by incarceration. Since Blacks have no true power, rules were made to enslave more Blacks than any other race in America. That is directly responsible for the over-population of the prison system now.

Racist Whites sent their kids and grandkids to school to become lawyers and judges while preventing Blacks from doing the same. Education is still being used as a tool to keep low income communities below the poverty line.

In the past Blacks who got educated were slain, and their communities were burned down. 

As a young Black man growing up in Oakland, California, I saw racism a little bit, but I was young and ignorant to the social structures and the constructs of oppression. My parents and relatives grew up under the ideologies of the Black Panther party. Never trust the White man.

Most of my experiences of blatant racism were in the courtrooms and later in prisons. I have been in five prisons — Corcoran, Jamestown, Solano, Calapatria and San Quentin — and, in each one of those places, I encountered some form of racism, either by the guards or by the staff, but mostly by another resident.

However, when I look at the system as a whole as well as around the prison yard, I see that the majority of those incarcerated look like me. I also see the separate but equal division of the tables, workout areas, showers and dining areas that are segregated amongst the races.

Each race has a designated place, and if another race comes to their area unannounced, it could lead to a race riot or some type of confrontation. Actual wars have been waged for each race to claim a particular piece of real estate. All prisons back in the old days were ruthless, so you could imagine how that must have been like. 

While in prison I abide by the structural norms of separate but equal because it’s a mindset that everyone has adapted to avoid causing an issue with another race. It’s an unwritten rule of respect.

But that mindset is stuck in the past, keeping us divided instead of unified against them.  

The prisons in California and here in San Quentin have attempted to implement a program that lets individuals designate themselves as “undesignated.” Is it working? No. I still see separate but equal things happening around the compound.

That separatism mindset is in each of us even if it’s unintentional or unconsciously done. In prison, it is just safer and natural to migrate with your own kind of people. The shameful part is that prisons purposely design the compound to perpetuate this behavior. Confined and small shared places always create strife.

Seeing this on a personal level makes me feel compelled to say something about it. To see us at a constant standoff with each other and at odds over something that is not ours to begin with is ridiculous to me.

To see someone who has succumbed to the trap set before us, holding onto old rules and old prison ideologies set by generations of guys who are no longer here is shameful to see happening. 

Even though I understand, I wonder when will we see the light and overcome the racism. We are stronger together and life goes on even when we are gone.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Timothy Hicks

Timothy Hicks is a writer incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California. He is a staff writer for San Quentin News.