Segregation in Prisons


Segregation in prisons has been and still is a matter of great controversy particularly in the United States of America. In one way or another, inmates in prisons find themselves being separated along with factors of homogeneity ranging from natural factors such as gender differentials to factors that exist in the human concept such as racial diversity. Just like a natural society, the inmates’ society is a multifaceted or rather diverse community (Zack, 2000, p.171). The diversity among the prisoners is characteristically buried in among other factors, gender, personality traits, crime history of respective inmates, and race (Taylor, 2004, p.12). As a result, differences among them are inevitable and the effects of such diversity are equally varied.

In the wake of the realization that the differences and diversity among the inmates are major contributors to violence and insecurity in prison, segregation of inmates along the lines of homogeneity has been greatly advocated for and adopted by the prisons’ authority as a measure of curtailing such violence. However, the subject has attracted a heated debate with both the opponents and the proponents citing varied reasons for their positions. This paper, therefore, presents a comprehensive discussion of the segregation in prisons, the reasons why there is segregation in prisons, discusses the argument for and against segregation in prisons and offers a description of how segregation creates gangs in prisons but provides a level of safety for correctional officers and other inmates. Furthermore, the paper researches the situation in which prisons have in the past attempted to abolish segregation and the outcomes of the latter.

Segregation in prison

Segregation in prisons is a scenario in which the inmates are divided or rather separated along with specific predetermined variables, with the ultimate objective of grouping the inmate into somewhat homogenous subdivisions. The underlying principle of segregation of prisoners particularly in the united state of America is to maintain security and stem widespread violence inside the prison cells (Angela, 1998, p. 67). In the wake of the realization that differentials among the inmate were a predominant contributor of insecurity, fatal violence, and formulation of a violent gang in prisons, the prison authorities resorted to segregating inmates. According to Taylor (2004, p.12), factors along which inmates are divided include but are not limited to race, sex (gender) classification ratio, custody consideration, the age of the inmate, the existence of enemies in the same premises as well as whether the inmate is affiliated to a gang that exists in the prison among other factors that amount to a point of homogeneity.

Ideally, if varying groups of inmate were to exist in the same cell, conflicts of interest and competition for dominance is most likely to ensure leading to violence or the formation of gangs along with such factors as race. Similarly, if the prison authorities realized that certain inmates out of coexistence or common interests have some form of gangs affiliation; the latter of which greatly compromises the security of other inmates, the most ideal thing would be to segregate them. A rather obvious and practically homogenous factor that prison authorities use to segregate inmates in prisons not only in the United States of America but also in all the other parts of the world is gender (Schwartz, 2006, p. 773). Unlike race differentials which are created by the human concepts, gender demarcation between males and females is natural or rather biological. Pragmatically, therefore, segregation of inmates along the gender differences should be equally natural and autonomous if at all any sanity is to be maintained inside the cells. Ideally, males and females cannot be housed in the same cells. As such, the prison authorities segregate inmates along gender lines mainly due to moral and security reasons.

In the state of California for instance, segregation of prisoners is evident and in fact, advocated for particularly by the California departments of corrections. According to Taylor (2004, p.12), besides the gender segregation that occurs naturally, race is a major variable and a factor of consideration due to the fact that most violence in the California states cell, as well as violent, security threatening prison gangs, has been formed along the racial lines. Consequently, the prisoners are grouped on racial lines where the inmates are in particular divided into four races mainly the blacks, Asians, whites, and other races: forming the fundamental principle of inmates’ separation alongside gender. In addition, the prison’s authority, or rather the California department of corrections may bring in other security-oriented factors such as age, gang affiliation, the existence of enemies in the cells among others to further subdivide the inmates. For instance, due to the fact that the Hispanics from the north and southern California have a history of rivalry, tension, and conflicts between them, the CDC virtually separates inmates from the two groups (Taylor, 2004, p.12). As such, the latter asserts that inmates who are identified as subjects for segregations are housed in a separate cell referred to as the reception cell for two months after which they are either taken to a different prison all together or allocated to a single cell, a double unit or a dormitory.

It is important, however, to note that racial differential is not a factor determinant to the inmate who is allotted a single cell. In the circumstance where an individual, upon graduation from the reception cell as allotted a double cell or a dormitory, he or she is given the autonomy to choose his or her roommate with the objective of ensuring absolute compatibility thus avoiding violence. Similarly, while allotting inmates to the dormitory, racial balance is a factor that the California department of correction always keeps in mind in an attempt to curtail racial-oriented violence that’s characteristic in United States prisons particularly in California (Zack, 2000, p.171).

Reasons for segregation in prisons

Basically, widespread violence in prisons arises from the differences or rather a diversity among the inhabitants of the state-run correctional facilities (Schwartz, 2006, p.772). According to Schwartz, the differences among people range from the natural factors such as gender and personality variation as represented in the individualism to the artificial factors such as differences in the race entrenched in the human ideology. Irrespective of the fact that some forms of segregation are inevitable due to the requirements of the societal values (gender segregation), segregation in prisons particularly in the United States of America is greatly rooted in the shortcoming of the society (Taylor, 2004, p.12). For instance, most of the segregation in the United States prison takes the form of racial segregation, where inmates are separated along the racial lines.

Typically, the American society or population is equally divided in terms of racial diversity. This forms the basis of racial segregation in prisons too. Ideally, people from different races particularly the black and the white race have over the years been rivals with each competing for dominance and revolt against suppression by the other. As a result, tension among the varying race is to a great extent inevitable. Consequently is the carryover of this ideology among the inmates has resulted in raging tension in prison, culminating in violence and thus necessitating segregation of the inmates by the prison’s authority in an attempt to make the prison a safe haven for corrections (Taylor, 2004, p.12). Therefore, violence among inmates is typically the predominant cause of segregation in prisons irrespective of many other subsisting differentials along which the latter is carried out.

The argument for segregation in prisons (pros)

To a great extent, segregation in prisons across the United States of America has been advocated for with its proponents arguing that it would stem the widespread violence that is believed to rock the state’s prison; particularly California.

For instance, in a move that seemed to be the last resort to curtail such violence, the prisons authorities in the California prisons usually referred to as the California departments of corrections had undertaken an approach via which new convicts or rather inmates are intensely vetted prior to admission to the CDC institutions (Zack, 2000, p.174). This is aimed at ascertaining the new inmate’s past criminal record, as well as his past confinement history so as to find out whether such an inmate may have inmates in the same prison that he or she might not be on good terms with. In case the new inmate is found with such bad history or likely to raise tension with the insides of the others the correction facilities, the authorities of the facility either segregate the inmate (incarcerates them in a separate prison/ room – or arrange for appropriate security to ensure that violence in the prison is avoided altogether. Under this arrangement, the California department of corrections allocates the inmate to a separate cell in the reception area and ensures that they are held therein for some time before their ultimate destination where they are to be segregated is finally determined.

Racial differential among inmates is one of the major causes of violence in California prisons according to Taylor (2004, p.10). This is perhaps a continuation of the racial tensions that exist between the varying races in the United States of America as the different racial groups attempt to seek dominance and superiority over the others. In the prisons of the state, therefore, race differences are a predominant cause of tension and fatal violence. Upon the ascertainment of this fact, the California Department of Corrections has also tended to segregate inmates along the racial line in a rather desperate attempt to maintain sanity/ peace or rather curtail violence therein. In fact, irrespective of the authorities considering other factors such as gender, classification ratio, custody consideration, the age of the inmate, the existence of enmity in the same cells blocks as well as whether the inmate is affiliated to a gang that exists in the prison, racial differences is a predominant factor that the prison authorities use in segregating inmates and which is believed to prevent racially led violence in prisons. In CMI for instance, – a male prison in California which is very racially diverse- racial segregation is the only left alternative to avoid violence against interracial gangs (Englehart, 2005, Para. 13)

A rather obvious and practically homogenous factor that prison authorities use to segregate inmates in prisons not only in the United States of America but also virtually in all the other parts of the world is gender. Unlike race differentials which are created by the human concepts gender demarcation between males and females is natural or rather biological. Pragmatically, therefore, segregation of inmates along the gender differences should be equally natural and autonomous if at all any sanity is to be maintained inside the cells. Ideally, males and females cannot be housed in the same cells. As such, the prison authorities segregate inmates along gender lines mainly due to moral and security reasons. While such segregation avoids immorality and violence against women in prison, it is a sure way of protecting women against sexual abuse by their unpredictable male counterparts (Schwartz, 2006, p.773).

As a matter of fact, segregation of inmates in prisons, irrespective of the factors against which the prisoners are separated from each other greatly works against the formation of the gang that has become commonplace in the United States prison and a major contributor to the widespread violence that is often witnessed across prisons in the United States of America. Ideally, segregation according to Schwartz (2006, p.773) ensures that inmates in the same cell or prison room are homogenous in character or shares things in common. As a result, rivalry/ competition among the varying groups is greatly avoided. In circumstances where inmates with varying characteristics are kept together, conflict of interests, tension, and competition among the different groups are likely to ensue leading to the formation of illegal grouping or rather gangs as each attempt to fight for its interests (Zack, 2000, p.174). Consequently, the prison staff/ authority has exhibited a high degree of confidence that segregation of prisoners along the predetermined variables is a sure way of alienating such gangs and thus succeed in making the prisons violence-free; particularly safe for criminals’ rehabilitation.

The argument against segregation in prison (cons)

Irrespective of the fact that segregation in prisons has greatly been necessitated by the widespread violence among inmates and that such separation is an ideal approach to curtailing the violence, segregation especially that takes the form of racial segregation has been greatly faulted. Apart from its potential effects in widening the already critical rift among the different races in the United States, racial segregation in prison is particularly retrogressive in the enhancement of safety and curtailing violence among the inmates (Taylor, 2004, p.12). The latter points out that racial segregation in prisons virtually extends the divisions among the different races to the prison cells, instead of fostering oneness. The segregation in prison particularly on racial grounds is further widening the gap between the races; further rooting a problem that has over the year threatened to divide the American population into units of contention and rivalry.

According to Zack (2000, p.174), oneness among the American people has to be enhanced in institutions including the prisons if at all the dream of attaining one America is to be achieved. According to the latter, while commenting on the death of a black convict and an inmate of robbery in violence, segregation in prison an arrangement in which the black inmates were virtually ‘starked’ in one cell was used as a scapegoat of discriminating the blacks in prisons and ultimately applying varied justice. Racial segregation in fact has the effect of sensitizing inmates against each other. By separating inmates along racial lines the result will be reminding them that they are the same thus entrenching the racial differential ideology in them. As a result, the different race is set further apart and makes it very difficult to reverse. The most evident result is the organization of inmates from specific races into gangs with the objective of fighting for common interests, fighting for dominance or superiority as well as taking vengeance against the ills performed by the other race. In such circumstances, therefore, segregation would entrench violence in prisons instead of curtailing it.

How segregation leads to the formation of prison gangs

Segregation in prison in whatever form leads to the formation of groups with homogenous aspects that are very likely to develop points of common interest. Whether such separation is based on gender, race, age, or compatibility in terms of crime history among inmates, it points out areas of difference among the inmates a factor that is likely to draw tension, conflict of interest, and competition among them. As such, the possibility of the subdivision leading to the formation of gangs with each group intending to further its interests in the prisons is very high according to Black Issues in Higher Education (2004). For instance, if inmates are divided in a racial platform to form the white and black groups, tension and ultimately conflict is bound to ensue between them forcing them to group into prison gangs as each seeks dominance and superiority over the other.

Typically, the black race in the United States has always been on the receiving end as far as any form of racial segregation is concerned. Consequently, the members of this race have developed some form of inferiority complex with the white assuming the role of the dominant and the powerful race. Logically, therefore, racial segregation in prison is likely to lead to the formation of the white race gang to seek dominance in prison while the blacks will form gangs to protect themselves from suppression by the white. This has the potential of intensifying tension between them leading to even worse violence than the segregation intended to solve in the first place. For instance, racial segregation especially in the state of California which is the United States largest prison system in which inmates are divided into four categories namely, the blacks, whites Hispanics, and Asian inmates has degenerated into highly rebellious respective gangs which hardly integrates and when they mix, fatal violence ensues (AP News, Feb. 2009, Para. 11).

Abolition of segregation in prison and the outcomes

Basically, segregation in prison (in whatever form that it takes) is built on the underlying principle that it is the most ideal way to curtail the violence that is widespread in prisons [, FEB 2004, Para 7]. However, the governments and authorities who fault greatly critic segregation arguing that it increases tension among the inmate and compromises the effort toward ensuring justice that is free from racial prejudice, thus advocating for the abolition of racial segregation among the inmates. Irrespective of such efforts having been put in place in the past especially in California (the United States’ largest prison system and where racial segregation has led to rivalry and tension among the inmates from the four races), not much success has been achieved. This is mainly because the inmates themselves are the strongest opponents of the idea of integration citing their own security as the major reason (AP News, Feb. 2009, Para 10).

Consequently, California has for many years continued to separate its inmates along with racial platforms, especially in the cells and sleeping areas. In 2005, however, the Supreme Court while referencing Brown v. Board of Education termed the practice of racially segregating inmates as unfair (AP News, Feb. 2009). In the 1954 case entitled the Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka) as presented in the latter, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that separation of students in school based on racial lines was indeed a violation of the fourteenth constitutional amendment arguing that such segregation fostered a sequence hatred among different races and enhances violence among them. Consequently, the US Supreme Court had ruled the abolition of racial segregation in all public schools. The California institution for men (CIM) at times referred to as CHINO is a California male prison in which segregation among the inmates which typically takes the form of racial segregation has virtually reigned since its establishment in 1947 to date. In fact, it is typical and renowned for the most dreadful prison violence among inmates particularly the ‘weekend violence’.

Irrespective of the US Supreme Court ruling on inmates’ integration in all the states prisons, little achievements have been made despite the ruling requiring full abolishment of racial segregation in prisons by last year (2008) (New York Times, Nov 14, 2008)

Efforts by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to end segregation in the Sierra foothills have not so far yielded many results either; with the segregation still widespread in many other parts of the United States. Although authorities argue the slow pace in the abolition of racial segregation in prisons is due to limited funding, evidence shows that the inmates themselves are a major obstacle and setback of its abolishment. According to AP News (Feb. 2009, Para 11) inmates especially in California prison which is typically racially diverse have cited their own security as the major reason for opposing desegregation perhaps because the four races namely the whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, cannot coexist and when they do fatal violence ensues. As such, powerful inmate gangs representing the racial diversity in prisons have openly risen against the abolition of racial separation among inmates. In fact, some have even threatened colleagues from participating in desegregation; a fact that had made authorities express their pessimism on the possibility of successfully abolishing segregation in all the thirty-three California states prisons in the near future.


The underlying principle behind any form of segregation of inmates in the prison is generally the security concern. By inmates’ segregation, the prison’s authority seeks to separate the warring groups such as racially formulated gangs, criminally affiliated gangs, as well as protect the weak and vulnerable inmates -mainly women- from sexual abuse by the male inmates. Furthermore, children can be segregated from adult inmates to protect them from the ruthlessness of the latter and to avoid corruption of morals by the adult inmates. While some form of segregation is necessary particularly in avoiding violence and ensuring that the cells are secure, it can at times lead to the formation of dangerous gangs among the prisoners; the latter of which compromises security which segregation itself seeks. Furthermore, racial segregation is faulted for its contribution to the prejudices in the American justice system as well as widening the racial gap among the American population, which has greatly compromised oneness among the American community. Irrespective of efforts to integrate inmates particularly in the California prisons, the inmates themselves have posed the greatest obstacle citing their own security; the main reasons for the little progress in the integration endeavor.

References List

Angela, D. Y. (1998). Race and Criminalization: Black Americans and the Punishment Industry. The, Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, p66-69.

AP News (2009) Calif. struggles to desegregate its prison inmates. Web.

Black Issues in Higher Education. (2004). U.S. Supreme Court Debates Use of Racial Segregation in Prisons, Vol. 21 Issue 21, p20-21,).

Englehart, J. (2005). Why Prisons Can’t Integrate-Abolishing segregation will incite violence. Web.

New York Times, (2004), Racial Segregation in Prisons p10 Schwartz, J. (2006). Correctional Facilities: Georgetown Journal of Gender & the Law, 2006 Annual Review, Vol. 7 Issue 3, p771-785.

Taylor, J. (2004). Segregation in California prisons. Web. (FEB 2004). Supreme Court debates use of segregation in prisons. Web.

Zack, N. (2000). Goldberg on Segregation and Prison. African Philosophy, Vol. 13 Issue 2, p165-171.

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