Racially Segregated ‘Black-Only Pods’ in Florida County Jail

African-American inmates were kept in 'black-only pods' because jail officials thought it would make the prison safer.

By Brentin Mock May 24, 2013

U.S. Department of Justice investigators found a number of unconstitutional practices at the Escambia County Jail facility in northwest Florida that "constitute serious risks to prisoner safety," according to the Justice Department’s findings letter. Among those problems were insufficient access to mental healthcare for the inmates, and racial segregation of black prisoners. Said the U.S. Department of Justice in a release:

Specifically, the department concluded that known systemic deficiencies at the facility, stemming mainly from staffing shortages, continue to subject prisoners to excessive risk of assault by other prisoners and to inadequate mental health care. Additionally, the department found that until recently, the jail had an informal policy and practice of designating some of its housing units as only for African-American prisoners. By segregating some of its prisoners on the basis of race, the jail not only stigmatized and discriminated against many of its African-American prisoners, it also fanned combustible racial tensions within the jail.

The racial segregation of black inmates into "black-only pods" had been occurring for decades. Justice officials first discovered the practice in October last year during a tour. They warned Escambia County Jail officials then that this was a breach of 14th Amendment equal protection rights. According to the findings letter, "For decades, the Jail’s officials have assumed that segregating on the basis of race would lead to a safer facility."

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, Jr., who wrote the findings letter, said such assumptions were "unproven and untethered to data" and "insufficient to justify an explicit racial classification."

Escambia County’s population is 23.1 percent African-American, and 70 percent white. The county jail has 1,442 prisoners, 65 percent of whom are black and 35 percent white.

A new sheriff for Escambia, David Morgan, told the Justice Department this past April that the segregation had stopped but Austin wrote that the Justice Department "will want to ensure that any agreement we reach with the Jail completely and permanently eliminates racially segregated housing units." Their investigation concluded that "the practice of segregating on the basis of race has compromised security by exacerbating racial tensions within the Facility."

Escambia County is 23.1 percent African-American, and 70 percent white.

Other Justice Department findings:

  • Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are a common occurrence, owed to a shortage of correctional staff, resulting in serious harm to prisoners
  • The jail does not provide timely and adequate access to appropriately skilled mental health care professionals
  • The jail routinely fails to provide appropriate medications to prisoners with mental illness
  • The jail provides inadequate housing and observation for prisoners with serious mental illness who are at risk for self injury or suicide

Austin wrote that these are all violations of the 14th amendment and the 8th amendment, which protects those convicted of criminal offenses.