Race relations in New Jersey prisons have changed dramatically since I arrived in state prison in 1992. Back then, there were more groups with hardcore beliefs and much more tension between them.
Here in New Jersey, there are still a few radical groups that draw a severe line between the races. But the ramifications of crossing that line are often kept to a minimum, such as chastising someone. Where I am housed, in East Jersey State Prison, different races live together in their units. Proximity leads to familiarity and helps mitigate tension. Life is easier if you talk to your neighbors.
Inmates work the tiers delivering ice, laundry, supplies and more, so people have to cooperate with each other. Failure to do so results in the loss of property or privileges on one hand, and the loss of a much-needed job and benefits on the other. Interaction can be somewhat forced but, for the most part, it is congenial.
Black and Hispanic people are overrepresented in the country’s sentenced prison population, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Black people made up one-third of the prison population in 2017, compared to just 12% of the U.S. adult population; for Hispanics, it was 23% compared to 16%. By contrast, White people made up just 30% of the prison population while making up 64% of the total adult population.
A 2021 analysis from the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 8 in 10 of the country’s largest cities were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. An integrated living environment — like the one found in many U.S. prisons — is growing more and more unique for our country.
As someone of mixed heritage — equally Middle Eastern and European — I have never fit neatly into any racial group. When I was first sent to prison, I sat down at a table to eat and two Black men got up and left. (I later learned they were part of a splinter religious group that did not eat at the same table with White people.) But that introduction hasn’t been representative of my overall prison experience, especially in more recent years.
In my opinion, a dramatic change happened once education and programming became a priority in the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Not only did enrollment and participation in programs increase, but so did interaction between people of different races.
While I was awaiting my trial in 1991, I started tutoring men in the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. It helped give my life meaning and opened my heart to others. I heard horrific stories from men about their upbringings, education and poverty levels. I learned about different cultures, different races and different religions.
In prison, I’ve continued in that role by teaching a GED preparation class. In the classroom, students cooperate and assist each other to help reach goals. Outside of class, I encounter inmates helping each other understand the law and important precedents that can help with appeals. People of different races don’t hesitate to ask each other for help or to offer it. In prison, regardless of race, there is one common goal: getting out.
Separation still exists between races. Black people tend to eat and recreate with Black people, Hispanic people with Hispanic people and white people with white people — self-segregation lives on. But folks can cross those lines largely without ramifications; it is only the few members of the most radical groups who take issue with talking to, eating with or living in a cell with someone of another race.
Over the past few decades, there have been several defining moments that highlighted the benefits of living intimately with different races: the beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots, the O.J. Simpson trial verdict, the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and George Floyd’s murder. Those events opened the door for deeper discussions about race relations.
Everyone I know, regardless of race, was horrified when they watched White police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of Floyd, a Black man. What came next was a lesson for anyone willing to listen.
Prison conversations about Floyd started as soon as the video of his murder was made public. My neighbor at the time was a Black man from Atlantic City who had been incarcerated for over 30 years. When the incident was being aired on the news, he and I discussed what we saw and what we thought would happen to Chauvin. I thought Chauvin was going to prison, but he thought Chauvin would get a slap on the wrist.
He told me how cops would use that kind of force in his neighborhood all the time. Although it didn’t usually end with someone dying, it happened often enough to be considered commonplace. He told me cops would never get punished. My neighbor’s perspective on Floyd’s murder eliminated a blind spot for me.
Race relations are complicated because the variations between us go much deeper than the color of our skin. No one can possibly know or understand what it is like to be you, to have the experiences you have had.
Still, it appears that men who have participated in integrated opportunities want to continue to learn alongside their neighbors. Despite their prison sentence, they still hope for a better future, helped along by self-improvement. Instead of divisiveness, that commonality engenders cooperation and encouragement between races.
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.