Two of Texas's leading experts in criminal justice chronicle the evolution of the Texas prison system from one of the most racially segregated prison systems in America to one of the most desegregated places in American society.
Decades after the U.S. Supreme Court and certain governmental actions struck down racial segregation in the larger society, American prison administrators still boldly adhered to discriminatory practices. Not until 1975 did legislation prohibit racial segregation and discrimination in Texas prisons. However, vestiges of this practice endured behind prison walls. Charting the transformation from segregation to desegregation in Texas prisons—which resulted in Texas prisons becoming one of the most desegregated places in America—First Available Cell chronicles the pivotal steps in the process, including prison director George J. Beto's 1965 decision to allow inmates of different races to co-exist in the same prison setting, defying Southern norms.
The authors also clarify the significant impetus for change that emerged in 1972, when a Texas inmate filed a lawsuit alleging racial segregation and discrimination in the Texas Department of Corrections. Perhaps surprisingly, a multiracial group of prisoners sided with the TDC, fearing that desegregated housing would unleash racial violence. Members of the security staff also feared and predicted severe racial violence. Nearly two decades after the 1972 lawsuit, one vestige of segregation remained in place: the double cell. Revealing the aftermath of racial desegregation within that 9 x 5 foot space, First Available Cell tells the story of one of the greatest social experiments with racial desegregation in American history.
- From Segregation to Desegregation in Texas Prisons: A Timeline
- Part I. The Outside
- Chapter 1. Broken Barriers
- Chapter 2. An Institutional Fault Line
- Chapter 3. 18,000 Days
- Part II. The Inside
- Chapter 4. The Color Line Persists
- Chapter 5. Cracks in the Color Line
- Chapter 6. Full Assault on the Color Line
- Chapter 7. The Color Line Breaks
- Chapter 8. 7,000 Days Later
- Chapter 9. Life in the First Available Cell
- Part III. A Colorless Society?
- Chapter 10. The Most Unlikely Place
- Select Bibliography
It was Sunday, April 23, 1939, and it was a day of rest for the men clad in white in Otey, Texas. This was not going to be like any other Sunday at the Ramsey State Prison Farm, however. On this day a visitor drove up to the prison and had special clearance to talk to the black men. He also had permission to listen to and record the convicts sing their work songs. The visitor's name was John Lomax—the "ballad hunter"—and he set about recording the songs used by the black Texas convicts in the fields about hoeing and flat weeding, felling timber with double-bladed axes, picking and chopping cotton, their dreams of freedom and far-off places, their hated bosses and tracker dogs, their girlfriends and wives, and their mothers. He recorded various songs sung by James "Iron Head" Baker ("My Pore Mother Keeps A-prayin for Me"), Wade "Monkey" Bolden, Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, W. S. "Jaybird" Harrison, Wallace "Big Stavin' Chain" Chains, and Lightnin' Washington.
Lomax, who was raised near Meridian, Texas, right where the 98th parallel passes through and divides Texas into two distinct geographical and cultural traditions, toured other southern prison farms in search of the "perfect ballad" or song untouched by the outside world. Yet the Texas prison farms of the 1930s, or any other decade, were not isolated completely from the outside world. The inmate world he encountered was shaped by what the felons brought with them into the farms and reworked to be useful in the tanks and hoe squads and turn rows. John Lomax was, among other things, a trailblazer, and he opened the Texas prison system to successive generations of researchers and outsiders in search of their own "perfect ballads."
Bruce Jackson, Harvard-educated folklorist, picked up where Lomax left off. He recorded numerous African American convict work songs (some at the Ramsey State Prison Farm) in the 1960s and took many photographs of the convicts' world as it teetered on the brink of the sea change examined in this book. Ben Crouch, a professor of sociology at Texas A & M University, donned the gray uniform and worked as a prison guard or "boss" in the 1970s. His "perfect ballad" was to uncover or shed light on the world of the guard and how the custodians managed to keep order in a world of hostile, bitter, and violent men. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted surveys of prisoners in the 1980s to ascertain their thoughts and opinions about the consequences of impending change as a result of judicial intervention behind the walls.
Each of these researchers or curiosity seekers was allowed extraordinary access to Texas prisons. Most important, these researchers were on hand at a time when the penal system was on the brink of monumental change. Outside influences, often uncontrollable, were set in motion that forever altered the isolated prison farms, and these individuals saw history unfold before them.
In this book, we bring historical records and observations, prison data, court records, social survey data, guard and inmate observations, and personal observations of Texas prisons that span three decades to examine the consequences of an obscure court ruling in Texas that ordered the custodians to desegregate prison cells. This book, then, is our "perfect ballad" and extends the work of those who preceded us—those who broke down the boundary between the free world and the prison world. We trace our lineage and our inspiration to those who came before us, and we surely stand on the shoulders of giants. Like them, we seek to understand the role of the outside world as it affected the inside world.
Looking up into the ultra-blue sky, members of the crowd strained their eyes to locate the small plane. A large fireball then appeared and the object shot vertical and continued its climb for nearly three minutes. Then the show was over. But something dramatic, history-making, had just occurred and only a few people were privy to the event. The date was September 7, 1956. On this day, famed test pilot Iven Kincheloe flew his X-2 to an altitude of 126,000 feet—to the edge of outer space. He was the first person to reach that altitude and he returned to Earth as a national hero. In the same month, another test pilot was the first to fly at three times the speed of sound, but his test plane veered out of control and he died in the crash. The year 1956 was one of major historical significance and involved individuals smashing barriers and crossing lines that had never before been breached. These test flights and a host of other technological breakthroughs shattered important boundaries that kept humans tethered to this planet and helped fuel the space race that would result in some of humankind's greatest achievements.
For most people, the idea of breaking a barrier or smashing through a boundary involves important scientific breakthroughs. Not every barrier, though, requires advanced technology to foster a breakthrough. Some barriers are created as a result of human ingenuity, and sometimes all it takes is one ordinary person to take a chance, to make a move at the right time and in the right place to forever alter a barrier. While most Americans in 1956 were captivated by dueling test pilots, there was a barrier of a different sort that was also being brought down. On June 5, 1956, Elvis Presley sang "Hound Dog" on the Milton Berle television show and wowed the audience with gyrating hip movements that caused a scandal. Beyond his hips, Presley also crossed over the racial divide that existed in America at the time—a barrier maintained by rigid segregationist laws and customs in most southern states—a crossing that transfused the white music of the day with black music. Presley was an innovator who opened the doors for a multitude of musicians. His melding of white and black music not only defied the staunch segregationist attitudes of the day but led to mixed race audiences and an erosion of the color barrier, particularly among southern youth.
Elvis Presley crossed the color line without fear and without penalty. His crossing, like most test pilots of the day, made him a legend, a hero, a teen idol, a movie star, and an icon for the ages. The same cannot be said for African Americans in Texas (or in any other southern state in 1956) who sought to break through the color line, especially in the area of public schools. These trailblazers sought neither fortune nor fame but rather an education for their children in appropriately outfitted classrooms. The battleground over the color line in Texas regarding school desegregation was located in Mansfield, a small farming hamlet on the southern edge of Fort Worth. Here is a description of the Mansfield school situation for African Americans in the early 1950s:
The Mansfield Colored School consisted of two long shabby barracks-style buildings placed lengthwise, side by side, on a plot of land off West Broad Street. There was no electricity, running water, or plumbing. Only one teacher was hired for grades one through eight. Water was hauled in milk cans from Ben Lewis' well one-quarter of a mile north of the school by the teacher with the help of students. Two outhouses sat several feet north of the buildings. There was very little equipment, no flagpole, no fence around the playground, and no school bus. . . . Black children in the ninth through twelfth grades had no school.
African American citizens in Mansfield worked throughout the 1950s to put an end to segregated schools and the color barrier, but to no avail. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was not enough for white citizens to end segregation. In fact, white community members and members of the school board in Mansfield steadfastly resisted any efforts to comply with Brown. To move the cause of school desegregation forward, Texas NAACP members asked L. Clifford Davis, an African American attorney from Fort Worth, to represent African American students in a legal action against the Mansfield School District. Davis filed a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. Federal District Court in Forth Worth on October 7, 1955, and the case was styled Nathaniel Jackson, a minor et al. v. O. C. Rawdon, et al. In modern parlance, the act of filing this case meant it was "game on" in Mansfield, across a wide variety of fronts. The color line, at least in Texas public schools, was now under assault.
The defendants resorted to a number of ploys to circumvent desegregation. Ultimately, the case ended up in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where on August 25, 1956, the court ruled:
It is ADJUDGED and DECREED that the minor plaintiffs Nathaniel Jackson, Charles Moody, and Floyd Stevenson, and all other negro minors of the same class as the named minor plaintiffs, have the right to admissions to, and to attend the Mansfield High School on the same basis as members of the white race, and that refusal of the defendant [Mansfield High School] to admit plaintiffs thereto on account of their race or color is unlawful.
The social climate in Mansfield throughout the legal maneuvering in the Jackson case was tense. Whites resented the "outside" interference of the NAACP and other "communist sympathizers" and "rabble rousers" seeking to end a comfortable life in the country. African Americans in Mansfield feared reprisals for their efforts. Their fears were not unwarranted. On the nights of August 22 and 23, 1956 (prior to the new school year), cross burnings occurred in the African American sections of Mansfield. On August 28, 1956, a straw man (with a head painted black) hung from a wire in downtown Mansfield. A sign on the body read, "THIS NEGRO TRIED TO ENTER A WHITE SCHOOL." On August 30, 1956, a crowd formed outside Mansfield High School, where some were carrying signs:
NIGGER STAY OUT
WE DON'T WANT NIGGERS
THIS IS A WHITE SCHOOL
COON EARS A $1.00 A DOZEN
On September 25, 1956, lawyers for the defendants appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court and on December 3, 1956, the Court refused to hear their appeal. Over the ensuing months and years, the Texas Rangers were called upon by Governor Alan Shivers to maintain order and quell any possibility of violence. In addition, new laws aimed at maintaining racial segregation were passed by the Texas State Legislature, including laws supporting general elections in local school districts that could accept or reject desegregation. It is worth noting that not until September 1965 were African American students finally allowed to attend classes at Mansfield High School. These actions and a host of others taken by legislators thwarted desegregation efforts for many years in Texas. Yet the actions of the lawmakers could not stop the momentum of change set in motion by the boundary "breakers" or innovators in Mansfield.
Listed below are some of the major Texas school desegregation events from the post-Civil War era until the close of the twentieth Century.
- 1866: First Freedman's Bureau schools open in Texas
- 1950: Sweatt v. Painter, which leads to desegregation of the University of Texas Law School
- 1952: Huston-Tillotson College is formed by merger of Samuel Huston College and Tillotson College
- 1955: African American students in Austin are allowed to attend previously all-white schools
- 1956: Mansfield School desegregation incident
- 1960: Borders v. Rippy: a federal ruling that begins the desegregation of Dallas public schools
- 1963: The University of Texas desegregates all aspects of campus life except student housing
- 1967: Schools in Hawkins and Big Sandy are completely desegregated
- 1970: U.S. v. Texas: a U.S. District Court orders the Texas Education Agency to assume responsibility for desegregating Texas public schools
- 1971: Austin's Johnson High School closes under a court-ordered busing plan
- 1996: Hopwood vs. Texas ends affirmative action programs in Texas higher education
The Color Line in the "Burnin' Hell," 1956
The 1950s color line in Texas, and in America in general, was under assault. In some places, however, the color line held fast, so fast that an outsider, even another southerner, would have concluded the year was 1926, or even 1886. One such place was the Texas prison system, a place familiarly known to convicts as "the burnin' hell" or "one lost valley," where time seemingly stood still and cultural change was nonexistent. In the burnin' hell, no innovators were on hand in the 1950s to challenge or in any way cross the color line. In fact, Texas prisoners were openly confined in prison units or farms on the basis of color—a practice that had existed since the beginnings of the system in the mid-1800s. For example, the Clemens and Ramsey I farms held African American felons, while the Eastham Farm housed whites and the Harlem Farm confined Hispanic prisoners. The groups never mixed, much as in outside society, and the three groups formed unique inmate societies.
Albert "Race" Sample, an African American inmate, was sentenced to twenty years in 1956 for robbery. To begin his sentence, the prison transfer vehicle called "Black Betty" dropped Sample off inside the back gate fence at the Retrieve Farm, an exclusively African American prison for older recidivists in Brazoria County. Sample, who was no newcomer to the Texas prison system, described the onset of cotton-picking season for prisoners at the Retrieve Farm in 1956:
Someone over in Number 4 tank hollered, "Heah they cum," referring to Cap'n Smooth and his entourage, Lieutenant Sundown and Buzzard. Thirty seconds later Big Tom rang [work bell] and the tank doors opened. This time, instead of Cap'n Smooth waiting at the end of the hall by the back door to count us as we went streaking by, he stood underneath the inside picket.
"Whenever you nigguhs git outta that back door, I want ever squad to stop by in front 'uv 'at laundry, an ever nigguh gitta sack! First nigguh I ketch 'thout a sack when we git to 'at field is gon' git sump'n dun to his goat-smellin ass," and strutted down the hall to take his position at the back door. Aiming his voice back up the corridor, "Lemme have 'em, Boss!"
We hit the yard following Road Runner [inmate] to the bundles of neatly stacked cotton sacks piled on the ground in front of the laundry. Road Runner grabbed a sack from the first pile and took off. Boss Deadeye was loping his horse to keep up as we sailed through the backgate, "Go Head!"
Ol' Sol [the sun] was just showing its huge, orange face over the eastern horizon by the time we crossed the main turnrow. As far as the eye could see was row after row of blossoming cotton bolls. We trotted straight down the Williamson turnrow to catch our set of rows.
"Count off twenty-seven row Ol' Chinaman," Boss Deadeye hollered to the tailrow man who worked the last row, and was responsible for spotting and counting off rows. Chinaman began to step them off calling out the number of each as he went. As soon as he hollered out the number, the con who had been assigned that number got on it, and began picking. "You sonsabitches ketch 'em Gotdam rows and gitcha mawdickin asses offa this turnrow!"
By the time I picked the cotton from two stalks, the rest of the squad was already twenty or thirty feet ahead of me.
"Ol' Cap Rock," [convict] Deadeye hollered, "hit this sorry bastard's row a lick up thar an hep him git th' end uv his sack off 'is Gotdam turnrow."
Then Deadeye started on me, "Nigguh, you betta go to feedin 'at bag, an movin them shit scratchers lak you aim to do sump'n! Aw, I know apickin cotton's neath yore style. I betcha a few weeks in 'at pisser [solitary confinement] jes might hep you tighten yore sorry ass up a notch."
About an hour later, "Awright, Ol' Road Runner, ya'll raisem up an head to them scales. We picked up our sacks, slung them across our shoulder, and ran behind Road runner down several turnrows.
"He's got 230, he's got 215, he's got 220, he's got 195." Cap'n Smooth stopped and commented when the weight dropped under 200 pounds, "Nigguh, you betta take yore Gotdam ass to wek an quit draggin roun fore I do sump'n to you."
The story above recalled by Sample was the reality for African American inmates in the 1950s on the farms and turnrows and in the tanks of the Texas prison system.
Twenty-five years later, it was August 1981 and the cotton was blooming and ready for picking at the Eastham Farm, a Texas prison unit for older recidivists near Lovelady, in East Texas. Eastham had a notorious history: it was the place where Clyde Barrow escaped in a hail of gunfire in the 1930s. The "Ham," as it was known to bosses and convicts alike, also had a history of brutal convict bosses, of hard days in the field, and tough violent nights in the tanks for the weak. But this was 1981, and the old days were gone.
The sun was already up when the field captain yelled out, "Lemme have 'em, boss," and the line squads were called out one by one. The men went out the door by the shower room and ambled to the back gate. Each squad was counted by a "hall boss" who manned the clipboard and the count slips for the old time field captain. Each inmate was counted as they filed past the two prison guards, and then they scampered out the back gate and jumped onto a series of wheeled carts or trailers connected to each other like a train. At the head of the trailers was a nice green tractor operated by an inmate. With a pencil on his ear, the inmate drove the trainload of field workers to the cotton patch. As the train slowly pulled away, mounted guards with side arms rode up to the train and escorted the group to the field. Few inmates wore hats. Most had to be told to tuck in their shirts and to buckle their belts, to be quiet, to quit laughing or "grab assin," to tie their shoes, and to hurry up and get on the trailers.
At Eastham the inmates were assigned to squads in three major line forces called "White line," "Black line," and "Mexican line." Despite their racial connotation, the lines at the Eastham Unit in the 1980s were now completely desegregated. The squads consisted primarily of white, African American, and Hispanic inmates, but every once in a while a Vietnamese, Jamaican, Cuban, Chinese, Puerto Rican, or Arab inmate would be counted.
In the cotton patch, most of the inmates simply dragged their sacks along the hard ground; few pulled at the cotton bolls for their lives as their predecessors did in the 1950s, and there was no weigh up either. The inmates were called out by their last names; gone were the colorful nicknames like "Shithouse Shorty" or "Rabbit" or "Wes' Texas," and gone were the cussing and hollering and threats and racial slights and slurs. "Doin' sumpn to somebody's ass" was now absurd. Gone, too, was the singing; there were no more convict work songs to pace the work. The line squads even returned to the building for a hot lunch and then returned to the fields afterward, and later returned early to the building for supper. More important, the field bosses had to go home at five, and so there was no more working from "can til can't." Most of the field bosses, however, lamented the lack of work effort by the inmates (they were inmates now, not convicts, not "ol' thangs," not "sorry sonuvabitches," at least in public) and stated all too often how the Ham had gone from "sugar to shit"—but this was progress, and nobody could stop progress.
When the inmates returned for the evening after work, they ran straight to the showers. The mix of naked bodies appeared to be a collage of colors, like fallen leaves on the ground in October. Once they donned clean uniforms, inmates went back to the cell blocks, or line tanks, where the races were celled separately, but they mingled freely in the dayrooms to play dominos, roll cigarettes, talk to their homeboys, or watch television and gamble quietly on sporting events. Those who had school in the evening tended to their lessons in a desegregated classroom, and some even had free-world female instructors. Church services were desegregated, as was the garment factory work force, the paint squad, the laundry workers, the hospital workers, the kitchen workers, the inside maintenance crew, and the inmate work crews who handled the dairy, the chicken house, the hog barn, and the dog kennel.
Understanding the Transformation
In the course of twenty-five years, from 1956 to 1991, there was a nearly complete transformation of the Texas prison community. Virtually all aspects of prison life yielded to the forces of racial desegregation, in terms of personnel, programs, and inmate populations. One final change, however, had yet to occur: the desegregation of prison cells. This arrived in 1991, and proved to be the most radical change of all.
To a large degree, desegregation of the Texas prison system paralleled desegregation in American society as a whole, which also saw the erosion of the color line in the same period. And yet, pockets of segregation persist in the United States today. Despite the frequent contact that exists between those of different racial and ethnic groups in many public settings, most people go home to single-race environments. In contrast, the Texas prison system may be the most racially desegregated, mixed community in our society today. This is a far cry from the scene described above at the Retrieve Farm in 1956.
The reason for this stark contrast, both between the Texas prison system then and now and between the current system and society at large, is simple: the government cannot force its citizens to desegregate their households, living rooms, or bedrooms, but it did exactly that in the Texas prison system. This was a result of a carefully crafted inmate lawsuit that forced Texas prison officials to desegregate inmate work and recreation areas, job details, broader living areas, and finally prison cells. Nevertheless, desegregation was staunchly opposed by prison administrators and staff, much like the school administrators in Mansfield, who believed that desegregation would unleash a Hobbesian race war. Resistance sprang up in the courtroom and through good old-fashioned foot dragging by the prison system, but desegregation eventually became a reality. Desegregating prison cells moved the color line one step further than any other legal remedy crafted by any federal court in the land. The Texas prison experience we describe in these pages is at the outer edges of social engineering and race-based public policy and has not been duplicated in any other social environment to date.
Some people say that prisons are artificial environments and should not be used to understand or explore race relations or court-ordered racial desegregation. We believe the exact opposite. Prisons are the perfect fishbowls through which to understand human behavior in its most dense condition. Where else in our society can we observe, over time, how white, African American, and Hispanic men, many with violent pasts and tendencies and a large percentage with racial animosities, coexist in cramped nine-by-five cells for hours on end? Considering the history of race relations in Texas, which is discussed at length in subsequent chapters, the question becomes the following: Can a policy of in-cell desegregation be safely implemented and successfully remain in place in a state with a long history of racial animosity? To answer this, we describe the process of prisoner desegregation in Texas prisons, as well as bring longitudinal data on inmate-on-inmate violence to bear on the issue of in-cell desegregation.
As a way to package our analysis and help the reader understand the process of prisoner desegregation in Texas, we have relied on the work of the old Chicago School sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, who examined the social ecology of Chicago. Park and Burgess were fascinated with the transformation of the city's neighborhoods. They examined the process of how one generation of immigrants moved into neighborhoods and displaced older populations, and how the process was repeated over and over again. As a result, some neighborhoods became, in their words, "socially disorganized," where criminal values and traditions replaced conventional values and were passed on from one generation to the next. Further, they found that certain areas of the city had higher rates of crime than others. To explain this situation, they used an "ecological perspective" wherein urban areas like Chicago are said to consist of concentric zones or rings extending out from the downtown central business district to the commuter zone at the fringes of the city. Each zone has its own structure and organizations, its own cultural characteristics and unique inhabitants.
Zone I at the center represented the downtown central business district and was inhabited by commercial headquarters, law offices, shops, and other retail establishments. Zone II was the zone in transition, where the city's poor, unskilled, and disadvantaged lived in slums next to factories and the stockyards. Zone III housed the working class, and Zone IV was home to the middle class, professionals, small business owners, and managers. Zone V was home to the commuters, people who lived beyond the city but commuted to work and then left, areas commonly referred to as the suburbs. But how can a theory of urban growth and transition be applied to prison desegregation? We suggest that in-cell desegregation in Texas prisons was the end result of a variety of social changes that began in the wider society, far away from the prison.
Zones of Desegregation
Park and Burgess's work led to a different way of thinking about cities and urban growth and the study of crime. Most important, their work demonstrated how people were distributed spatially in the process of urban growth. Their notion of zones can be applied to our task and enables us to explain just how desegregation unfolded between 1956 and 1991 in Texas and American society in general, and in Texas prisons in particular. We are primarily interested in the distribution of desegregation events that occurred over time and that eventually led to in-cell desegregation in Texas prisons.
Figure 1.1 illustrates what we loosely term "Zones of Desegregation." Zone V represents the wider society where efforts to desegregate public places occurred first, mostly through legal challenges in the early 1950s. Judicial rulings in these important cases (and a multitude of others between 1950 and 1965) redefined the rules of membership or citizenship in our society. Included in these are Supreme Court rulings that eliminated the civil and social barriers put in place by Plessy v. Ferguson in the late nineteenth century (the doctrine of "separate but equal" and the justification for Jim Crow laws). Passage of the Voting Rights Acts in 1965 and other judicial decisions in the 1960s on suffrage extended the full range of the political rights of citizenship to minorities in the United States.
The combined effect of judicial rulings and federal legislation redefined the status of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States and led to their integration into the broader human community—they were extended the full complement of civil, social, and political rights of citizenship heretofore granted primarily to European Americans. We suggest that the moral worth of minorities on the "outside" had to be redefined before any shifts in the moral worth of prisoners could take place on the "inside."
Changes in the wider society ultimately filtered into the prison community. Zone IV represents the Texas prison system, a social institution enveloped within the wider society. Until 1965, Texas prisons were racially segregated (separate prisons for whites, African Americans, and Hispanic inmates), and wholesale racial separation remained in place a full decade after the historic Brown decision.
In the 1960s, alert prison administrators noted the broader social changes afoot in American society and took a proactive stance, desegregating the system on a broad scale. White, African American, and Hispanic inmates were now housed together in the same prisons. No longer were inmates housed in single race/ethnic group institutions, a move that changed the prisoner community forever. Desegregation of prisoners only went so far in the 1960s, however, and inmate living areas, work areas, and a multitude of other prison areas remained strictly segregated.
Zone III represents the prison work and service areas (e.g., dining areas, barber shops, churches, and school and treatment programs), which were desegregated in 1970s. Zone II comprises the broader prison living areas—dormitories (large open rooms with single beds) and cell blocks. In the late 1970s the cell blocks were desegregated, but in reality this meant that white cell partners, for example, were housed next to African American or Hispanic cell partners—a form of desegregation sometimes referred to as a checkerboard pattern. In other words, the cell blocks were racially mixed but the cell inhabitants remained segregated. Finally, Zone I represents actual two-man prison cells—the focus of our analysis because the cell is where the potential for violence, lethal violence, is the most apparent and the place that is perhaps the most difficult to monitor and control in the prison environment. Indeed, once the doors are rolled shut, very little can be done to stop a knife attack or an attempt by one "celly" to strangle another.
Desegregating the prisoner living areas, particularly two-person cells, drew the greatest amount of intransigence from the prison administration and custodial staff. These individuals believed that any efforts to racially mix the cells would lead to catastrophic results—a violent race war. Interestingly enough, these predictions of wholesale racial violence were almost identical to the claims made by Mansfield school officials in the 1950s and in other social arenas facing desegregation mandates. It should also be noted that when the first broad efforts to desegregate Texas prisons began in the 1960s, no one ever believed that the desegregation of cells would be the end result. Prisons are full of hard men, many who dislike themselves and many who dislike and mistrust each other. Getting a group of social miscreants like prisoners to do anything together is difficult, let alone live peaceably in a room not much bigger than a telephone booth. Nothing could have prepared Texas prison administrators for what was about to become one of the largest natural experiments in racial desegregation in American history.
Our zone theory of prison desegregation suggests that the path to prison cell desegregation was evolutionary and took decades to come to fruition, and that the seeds for this monumental event were sown by and highly dependent upon the legal and social changes in the wider society. Events in Zone V, such as school desegregation and equal access to public parks, housing, and public transportation, were the catalysts that set in motion desegregation within prison organizations that ended with in-cell desegregation in Texas. Further, the deeper that desegregation efforts were pressed into the prison community, the closer the wagons were circled, as Texans say, and prison administrator and staff resistance strengthened. Nevertheless, once the forces of change were unleashed outside the prison, it was but a matter of time before the cell would become the battleground for prison attorneys seeking to prevent cell desegregation and inmate attorneys seeking mixed cells. The cell was the last barrier to be broken with regard to prisoner desegregation.
Research on prison organizations over the past two decades has clearly demonstrated that prisons are not isolated from the rest of society, nor are they insulated from the core values of the wider society. Prison walls are permeable, and changes in the wider society eventually filter into or behind prison walls. It may take an extra decade or two for change to occur, but change will happen. In this case, the change that unfolded exceeded all expectations. Today, any observer of prison organizations would be amazed at the depth of desegregation in the Texas prison system. In fact, no other state in the nation enforces a strict policy of in-cell desegregation like that in Texas. We imagine that if Albert "Race" Sample walked into the Retrieve prison unit today, he would be overwhelmed by the transformation. Would he consider these changes to be progress? Perhaps, but one must consider that concepts such as "progress," "successful," "better," or "improved" are heavily value-laden and depend on which side of the bars you stand. One person's progress is another's devastation.
Our goal in this book is to answer this question: Did efforts to desegregate Texas prison cells unleash a torrent of racial violence, and if not, why not? We turn now to examine the history of segregation and race relations in Texas to help frame and guide the evolution of in-cell desegregation in the Texas prison system.
“This book fills a critical niche, providing an engaging story of an important set of events. The desegregation lessons learned have wide applicability.”
Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin