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The Race Card—A Potential for DisasterI kept a journal in prison. Writing made me feel safe. I captured parts of days that interested me, humored me, or frightened me. The entries about fear reflected my feeling out of control when I expected a negative event. At times I witnessed the wheels of authority edge toward a potential race riot on the yard. Experiencing a fight on a yard, large or small, is like having a noose around your neck. If one’s race is fighting, you fight for your race. No excuses. Not even for guys in their fifties or sixties. I was not wired for fighting and instead tried to reason out differences before the yard’s population reach a flash point.


Journal Entry

2-27-04 Fri

Smoking 602 signed by Duffy. [California Department of Corrections Form 602 enables an inmate to communicate grievances to the administration. The administration normally has fourteen days to respond.] Yesterday word came out via COs [correctional officers] that he filed 602 for indoor smoking ban enforcement. He’s getting negative input/response from Blacks. A CO’s breach of confidentiality is least instigating of harassment of Duffy. He’s upset, still strong on pursuing. 602 response due 3/10.



Duffy, a Black inmate, filed a written complaint requesting the administration require the guards to enforce the no indoor smoking rule. I supported the report and wrote the appeal for Duffy. The 602 form initiates an appeals process for inmates’ grievances to be resolved by the prison directly.


Further Entry from That Day

Conversation with Ice (a Black inmate)—upset with Duffy for filing 602 because Duffy’s motivation is to file a lawsuit and Duffy sells tobacco. Ice could not argue Duffy’s case for me. Ice very heated up and sees a potential race clash when a Mexican gets a 115.



Form 115 is a Rules Violation Report by the administration against an inmate. Misconduct believed to be a violation of law or not minor in nature is reported on this form. A Form 115 allegation can tack time on to an inmate’s prison term. Ice is confused about why Duffy would file a 602 when Duffy sells marijuana underground. Ice doesn’t know that Duffy has an upper respiratory problem that is irritated by indoor smoke. If another race’s member gets busted for smoking inside, the concern is that word would telegraph around the yard that a Black filed a 602 to enforce the indoor smoking ban, earning another race member more time to serve; that could spark a riot.


Additional Journal Entries

Duffy and Ice are equally impassioned by their respective positions. The smoking situation is way out of control and overcrowding makes it worse. Per Jeff [a reasonably trustworthy inmate who worked at the admin office] this P.M.—the cops did leak the fact that Duffy did file the 602 and their purpose was to put racial pressure on this issue by enforcing the ban on Blacks, and then Mex, to create additional pressure and risk for Duffy (!)



Last night was horrible. No sleep. The whole dorm was filled with cigarette smoke. Guards did little to track the smoke to the sources. TVs were particularly loud. The air felt tight and the mood was like a contained but churning fury.



On February 28, the yard was put on minimum work duty. The smoking rule was becoming too hot an issue. Only food preparers and servers were allowed to leave the dorm to go to work; everyone else stayed on their bunks, with limited bathroom and water fountain privileges. Being a Saturday, all visitors were told the yard was closed and were sent home.

We ate on our bunks; food was served to us. We used days like this to catch up on sleep, letter writing, and reading. Minimum workdays are designed to act as cooling-off periods, and in this case it might have been working. There was no murmuring of something to come.


One More Journal Entry

2-29-04, Sun

Last night I drafted a proposed agreement, based on an outline of house rules, for all races to approve. The guide was meant to be a gentlemen’s agreement to agree on many housekeeping issues. Noise, seating, radio competitions, smoking, bathroom issues.

Reactions: Jaime (a smoker): “You want to cause a riot!”

Eddie (non-smoker): “Sounds good to me.”



While no one on the yard would sign my proposal—I didn’t get a single signature—instead, I received polite or indifferent acknowledgments of my efforts from all the races. The indoor smoking situation improved for a while. After that, there were other fish to fry, and the indoor smoking ban went back underground, stripped of all its pent-up emotions.

My review of my journal entries resurrected the feelings associated with this period of time. Prisoners deal with the ebb and flow of a dorm-like housing unit—picture an empty big-box warehouse filled with double- or triple-decker bunks—knowing that change can erupt into violence at any moment.


My Conclusions

I formed several conclusions from this situation:

  • A complaint process that is not kept confidential can spark negative recourse on a yard.
  • The COs must be better screened for racial sensitivity triggers and trained to be color blind (if that’s at all possible).
  • Inconsistent enforcement of smoking and grooming regulations engenders racial friction.
  • Inconsistent enforcement of rules causes problems. Because of overcrowding, only two COs oversee a few hundred inmates at one time, so enforcing inmate housing rules become unrealistic. It’s much easier, and safer, for the COs to not mess with what amounts to babysitting issues: TV, radio, tattooing, and smoking.

The frightening event described could have festered into a catastrophe. These human flash points happen every day on every prison yard in the country. The prison reform issue most directly aligned with this scenario is the need to reduce prison crowding. Crowded conditions exasperate situations. Think about getting stuck in a crowded elevator and trying to comfortably hold your ground.

The second prison reform issue raised here is that COs need to be screened before working as prison guards. A workplace that can turn well-intentioned public servants into callous and spiteful antagonists must consciously be avoided.

To learn more about well-intentioned COs turning harsh toward inmates, I recommend Professor Philip Zimbardo’s book entitled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.



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