Apparently I'm pretty naive, because I had no idea that in 2008, California prisons were still racially segregated. Oh, I'd heard about the gangs, and the way that the prisoners stuck to themselves and punished one another if they talked to or hung out with members of another race. But I never dreamed that the State of California enforced systematic segregation by race. I mean, isn't that, like, illegal? And hasn't it been illegal for the past half century or more?
Now there's some controversy because the State is finally getting around to integrating its prisons. Some predict that forcing prisoners of different races to share cells will lead to a bloodbath. Always possible, I suppose, but isn't it equally possible that prisoners will acquire a perhaps uncomfortable but nonetheless necessary lesson about what it's like to live in the real world, where coming into contact with people you don't necessarily know or like is a routine part of everyday life?
And isn't is also possible that for every unreconstructed racist inmate, there's another who would like to get to know people from other ethnic groups but is prevented from doing so under pain of violence or death, thanks to restrictions laid down by racially aligned prison gangs? State-sanctioned and enabled prison gangs, as it turns out.
I was particularly intrigued by the Department of Corrections official who said that prisoners who "refuse" to participate in the program of integration "will face discipline ranging from loss of privileges to solitary confinement." Color me naive once more, but I was under the impression that once you get sentenced to prison, you lose most if not all your options when it comes to where and how you will be housed.
But such is not the case, apparently; at the weekend I had a long conversation with an Indiana state prison guard who painted such a bleak picture of life inside that I found myself wondering whether there's a viable method - short of mass executions or eliminating half the laws under which people are currently sentenced - of reforming America's vastly overcrowded and apparently hopelessly ineffectual penal system.
He told me many stories illustrating the pointless brutality and callous lack of concern on the part of inmates for anything other than their own interests, but for me the clincher was hearing how one of the more tedious aspects of being a prison guard was being called to cells with complaints like, "My cable's not working."
I'm not in favor of instituting gulags or concentration camps, but something seemed terribly wrong here. Half my friends in New York City can't afford or can barely afford cable; why on earth is the state furnishing it to inmates who are supposedly being punished? Isn't taking away TV privileges one of the first resorts of parents faced with recalcitrant children? Isn't it possible that better results might be achieved by locking a prisoner up with only a good book for company? Sure, it might piss him off at first, but society's purpose in locking him up was not, as far as I can tell, to cater to his preferences in entertainment or companionship.
Of course maybe I'm being too harsh, and would change my tune if I were the one being sentenced to prison. Having come fairly close on a couple of occasions to doing hard time, the prospect doesn't seem as farfetched to me as it might to others; in fact, I still experience moments of paranoia where I'm convinced that it's only a matter of time before "they" catch up to me and haul me away, even though my lawbreaking for the past few decades has largely been confined to the jaywalking and running stop signs on my bike department.
But I do know that if by some bizarre concatenation of circumstances I were to wind up in prison, I'd want to be able to associate freely with people regardless of race, and not be pressured into associating with the sort of yobbos who form prison gangs just because they happen to be the same color as me. And while it would be tempting to while away my years of confinement by watching endless reruns of Law And Order and Seinfeld, I suspect I'd be far better off with some good books and lots of time for reflection on how and why I happened to be there. As I say, I might change my tune if I were the one inside, but as a general rule, people don't get to sent to prison for making sensible life choices, so I'm not sure how much - if any - attention needs to be paid to what the average prisoner *thinks* he or she would like.