The explosion of violence at the California Institution for Men in Chino was an almost too-perfect snapshot of the crisis engulfing California’s prisons. By Sunday morning, hours of rioting had left dozens hospitalized and much of the facility in charred shambles. The incident came just days after a federal court opinion condemning the intense overcrowding of the state’s prisons, which critics say has decimated the health of inmates and created a breeding ground for violence and future criminality. The unrest reportedly began with a fight between Black and Latino inmates and erupted into destructive brawling across the prison. The incident apparently reflected a pattern of roiling racial antagonism among Blacks, Latinos and whites in the tightly packed facility. ("All races had injuries,” Corrections Department spokesperson Lt. Mark Hargrove told the New York Times. “But there are a greater number of injuries among Hispanic and black inmates.") In the background of the clash is a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a policy of automatically separating prisoners by race as a safety precaution. The court ruled that the state had a certain duty to avoid segregation:
By perpetuating the notion that race matters, racial segregation of inmates may exacerbate the very patterns of violence that it is said to counteract… In the prison context, when the government’s power is at its apex, we think that searching judicial review of racial classifications is necessary to guard against invidious discrimination.
Though the decision may not have had a direct bearing on the Chino riot, Jerry Remmers at the Moderate Voice says the incident challenges the Court’s vision of integration. Citing the appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he argues, "judges most sensitive to racial dynamics might be more aware of the pitfalls of forcibly confining black and Latino and Aryan Nation zealots in the same cell." But Chino is crying out for a different kind of sensitivity. The racial animosity, while real, obscures the core of the crisis: criminal justice policies that target people of color and lock up huge swaths of the population. As a social microcosm, prison reflects, compounds and channels the economic desperation and racial polarity that plagues inmates in their barracks and their neighborhoods. Integration can’t be realized within a system founded on inequality and structural violence, especially when an utter lack of rehabilitative resources leaves prisoners to fight for survival through their own social order. Different groups of inmates may war among themselves, but the official account of the incident reveals who wins in this system: among the injured were some 250 inmates and not a single staff member. In the wake of the riot, California Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate commended “the courageous CIM staff who responded to end this major disturbance.” The prison remained under lockdown, “pending investigation into the reason for the fighting.” Image: New England Cable News