Commentary: Why Was This Prison Still Segregated?

A five-year investigation turned up ugly and dangerous practices taking place in a Florida jail.

Posted: 05/29/2013 02:48 PM EDT

For decades now, racial segregation has been against the law in America. Whether it’s schools or hospitals or businesses, it is illegal — and, to most people, immoral — to discriminate based on a person’s skin color. Unfortunately, the kinds of things we take for granted in the day-to-day world don’t always extend to what goes on behind bars.

According to a five-year Department of Justice investigation released last week, the Escambia County Jail in Florida is guilty of doing several things wrong over the years, including not doing enough to keep prisoners safe from assault and providing inadequate mental health services to inmates. Things have gotten so bad for mentally unstable prisoners that Escambia sends about one inmate per month to the hospital following an incident of self-harm.

But according to the Justice Department, one of the jail’s misdeeds stood out from all the rest for its truly astounding archaic roots: Prison authorities had for decades been segregating Black prisoners from the rest of the jail’s population, essentially creating a “Blacks only” unit.

The Justice Department said that not only was segregating Black prisoners a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, it also added fuel to the prison’s racial problems by asserting white racial superiority [PDF]:

The Jail's decades-long practice of housing some prisoners in housing units designated as only for black prisoners ("black-only pods") discriminates against African-Americans on the basis of their race, contributes to prisoner perceptions that the Jail favors white prisoners over black prisoners, and makes the Facility less safe by fanning racial tensions between prisoners.

Escambia County told the Justice Department last month that they had finally integrated their prison, after decades of segregation, but one wonders how much damage had already been done.

Being in prison is one of the most demoralizing and, sadly, violent things a person can go through in America today. Add on to that racial tensions aggravated through codified racism from prison authorities and it’s easy to understand why Escambia was a hotbed for violence and mental health woes. This in mind, how many young men emerged from Escambia angrier and more conflicted than they would have been had the jail not gone out of its way to degrade them with segregation? How many of those young men returned to a life of crime?

One of the worst things about American prisons is that many of them exist ostensibly to punish their occupants, not rehabilitate them. As that practice continues, we can’t be surprised when so many former prisoners, many of whom feel worthless and full of rage, return to lives of crime.

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