Segregation Order at Reidsville Prison

Segregation Order at Reidsville Prison

By Ginny Looney

Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp.19-21

In southeast Georgia last summer, the day before Independence Day, a decade of legal precedent was overturned at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville when U.S. District Judge Anthony Aliamo ordered the segregation of dormitories for a 60-day period. The segregation order, issued to cool tempers and ease the tension, came after one prisoner was killed and five others were wounded during a racial fight, one of a series of revengeful attacks since November 1976 that killed five inmates and injured 47. The court told prison officials to assign Black and White inmates to alternating dormitories in checkerboard fashion; the cell blocks, dining hall, recreation and work areas remained integrated.

The court-ordered segregation marked the first time in modern history that a federal judge had directed a state to separate prisoners by race. Although prison officials said they opposed the order as a misguided and potentially troublesome attempt to end racial attacks, the state complied with the order without a legal challenge and later asked for an extension of it. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing the prisoners, also did not appeal the judge’s decision, preferring to publicly remain silent on segregation while privately negotiating for better conditions at the prison.

The 60 days of segregation grew to eight months finally ending in mid-February. The state vacillated and LDF acquiesced to the judge’s decision, thereby accepting the premise that separating the races was the only way to restore peace at Reidsville. Their illusion was dispelled in only a few weeks after the order was issued when racial violence again erupted in July and August.

Aliamo ordered the segregation as part of the Guthrie case, a class action lawsuit filed in 1973 to seek reform at the state prison. In 1974 one of case’s earlier orders, Aliamo required the state to integrate Reidsville and rejected requests to have segregated dormitories.

On at least four occasions since the state law requiring segregated prisons was found unlawful in 1968, integration at Georgia State Prison had been attempted but violence caused the experiments in integration to be short-lived. Therefore, Aliamo’s order continued a ten-year tradition at Reidsville of reverting to segregation to resolve racial violence.

The segregation of 1978, like its predecessors, was justified by arguments of security. Marvin Pipkin, a Brunswick attorney Aliamo appointed as special master in the Guthrie case, says he recommended the temporary separation of White and Black prisoners to the judge to return order to the prison and save innocent lives. “There were so many rumors and so much tension in the prison. I felt that if we separated the prisoners for an intervening period of time and let things cool off, it would help the situation. We were trying to stop the senseless assault of Whites and Blacks on each other,” he said.

“I felt the need for the life and health of inmates was more important on a temporary basis than saying to the prisoners, ‘Well, you’re going to have to live together’,” because there’s a Supreme Court decision which says that prisons have to be integrated.

The arguments favoring segregation in prisons may not have been modified over the past ten years, but in this case the party responsible for initiating the decision to segregate was unique. While prison officials acting alone have segregated prisoners by race for a few days and judges have permitted such racial separation, no judge has been known to use the power of the federal court to affirmatively order segregation, even for a short period of time.

“In Washington v. Lee (the Alabama case which first declared unconstitutional state laws mandating racial segregation in prisons), the court left open the possibility of segregating prisoners if race could be shown to be a specific problem. It’s my understanding that the judge took this case one step further by issuing an affirmative order to

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resegregate,” says Ralph I. Knowles Jr., associate director of the National Prison Project, which is affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Aliamo not only required the racial separation, but he also issued the order without the plaintiffs or defendants formally requesting it. “I don’t think either side particularly approved the action,” said Pipkin. “At the time they were saying they wanted to try something else.”

However, the only people publicly disapproving the court-ordered segregation were civil rights and prison reform groups. “It’s the worst sort of cop-out – to lay the problems at Reidsville on integration,” said Gene Guerrero, director of the ACLU of Georgia. “The conditions at Reidsville, which concern overcrowding and the way inmates are treated, go back 40 years.” After Aliamo extended the segregation of October for an indefinite time period, Tyrone Brooks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “I don’t believe this is the answer. It just makes people believe the only reason the problem of killings and violence is there is because of integration.”

In contrast, the prisoners’ attorney expressed only resignation when he said the order demonstrated how bad the situation had become at Reidsville. Although the LDF lawyers did not support the judge’s decision to segregate, they also did not initially oppose it and allowed it to continue unchallenged for eight months. Instead of seeking a reversal of the decision, the lawyers chose to continue discussions with the state’s attorneys on the unresolved issues in the Guthrie case, including the process of reintegration.

No challenge was made, says Steve Winter, an LDF staff attorney, because no one thought the original 60-day order would be prolonged for several months. In addition, “(t)here’s the problem of whether we could have won on appeal to the Fifth Circuit,” says Winter, who inherited the case in September. “We hoped that negotiations with the judge and the defendants would be more successful than litigation.”

The state’s position on the court order was even more muddled. Prison spokeswoman Sara Passmore says, “We particularly felt it wasn’t the solution because the major conflicts haven’t occurred in the living areas.” Her boss, Prison Commissioner David Evans criticized the “checker-hoarding” order when it was issued, particularly the time requirements. “When you pull inmates out to live in their own races for 60 days and then reintegrate them, I cannot see anything viable that will come of this,” he said. Two months later after two more racial fights at Reidsville, E vans wanted an extension to the 60-day deadline.

Gov. George Busbee supported Evans in his request for a delay in the reintegration of the dorms. The governor said to reporters, “I assume that the commissioner felt that the commissioner felt that we would be anticipating more violence if they were to be integrated at this time, before we were able to come up with the changes that we’re making down there in order to make this a maximum security facility.” At the same time the newly appointed warden of Georgia State Prison, Charles Balkcom, was suggesting that the cell blocks follow the segregation pattern of the dormitories. The confusion resulting from the contradictory statements – opposing segregation but wanting it continued and even expanded finally caused Evans to deny that the state had requested segregation and prompted the state Board of Offender Rehabilitation to reaffirm its commitment to integrated prisons.

The uncertainty surrounding the state’s position on segregated facilities was partially produced by statements prison officials and the governor made last spring before segregation occurred. While Busbee and then Reidsville Warden Joe Hopper said they countenanced integrated prisons because it’s “the law of the land,” they also made clear they thought that integration had caused much of the violence at the state prison. Following four racial fights one night in mid-March which killed one prisoner and injured 16 more, Hopper said, “I really don’t think they (federal judges) understand the problem. It’s not because they haven’t been made aware, because they know what the problem is. It is just that the law of the land of this particular philosophy (of civil rights) has to be enforced at all costs,” which he estimated as the lives of at least five inmates and many sleepless nights for him. Two weeks later Busbee told reporters, “I don’t think it’s humanly possible to totally prevent murder in prisons. The problem is coming because of integrated sleeping quarters.”

A critic of the state’s handling of problems at Reidsville disagreed with the governor’s explanation of the violence. After a fight in the prison gymnasium in June which injured nine men, Atlanta Voice columnist Charles King Jr. wrote, “Last week’s violence served the state well. It reinforced the official position taken by Reidsville officials and Gov. Busbee that Reidsville problems stem from forced integration. It is a thin alibi that pretends, ‘If the courts had not ordered us to integrate, we would have no conflicts.'”

Paradoxically, the most violent riot of the year and the first murder of a guard by inmates inside the prison in the history of Reidsville occurred three weeks after segregation was ordered to prevent more killings. On July 23rd a group of Black inmates being escorted to dinner overpowered their guards and took the keys. The inmates rampaged through two dormitories for nearly an hour, burning mattresses, killing the guard and two prisoners and injuring another guard. All the victims were White. In a racial attack on Black inmates less than a month later, White inmates in an integrated cell block killed one Black man and wounded three more while they were preparing for work.

The incidents show that segregation clearly doesn’t work to hold down violence, says Winter of the LDF. “If anything,” says Passmore, “it created greater power struggles.” Knowles of the National Prison Project says, “Once you segregate, you’re only asking for suspicion, paranoia, hostility and accusations that one group is given privileges

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that the other isn’t.” Warden Balkcom insists, however, that the segregation had a quietening effect.

Regardless of Balkcom’s observation, the state’s assignment to provide protection for every inmate may well prove as difficult to fulfill after the interlude of segregation as it was last summer. The obvious improvements have been made: the population has been reduced from 2,800 inmates to 2,100, and 125 additional guards have been hired. The state is under court order to maintain a 55 percent Black and 45 percent White population in the dormitories until single cells are constructed. But the problems of providing adequate facilities, meaningful activities and humane treatment at Georgia State Prison remain. The more immediate concern of dealing with people who may not want to sleep next to members of another race lingers. It is not clear that the state can fulfill its obligation.

One reason for the state’s difficulty may lie with its crew of predominantly rural, White guards who are paid to protect a predominantly urban, Black population. Suspicion and hostility exists between the two groups. Black prisoners have complained that the guards encourage tension and mistrust by allowing White inmates to keep weapons; the guards protest that they are wrongly blamed for the violence of the prisoners.

After repeated accusations that guards were passing weapons to prisoners, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted an inquiry at Reidsville. Two guards were fired and 16 more resigned, primarily for smuggling drugs to prisoners, says Passmore. During the investigation Busbee said at a press conference, “There is, in my opinion, some evidence that a very limited number of these crudely fashioned weapons made in the prison, that their presence was condoned by a limited number of correctional officers.”

Winter cites the state’s lack of vision as another problem. When attorneys filed the state’s plan for reintegration last fall, it essentially said, ” ‘Trust us. We’ll do it by July 1979,’ ” says Winter. “Our experience is that the state hasn’t come up with a sophisticated response to the problem.” Expenditures support Winter’s contention that the state’s primary thrust has been the improvement of security for guards at the prison. The state appropriated $1.2 million after the guard’s death, primarily for equipment to protect the employees.

The guards won priority in another decision concerning inmates – their role in the process of reintegration. During the 1974 integration of the prison, community relations specialists worked with inmates to prepare them for the change. “The idea was to work from within and give inmates the feeling that they have a role in their destiny,” said Winter.

Such an active role for prisoners in February’s integration did not happen because of the abortive life last spring of the Inmates Unity Council, an integrated group of prisoners who wanted to reduce the violence and also negotiate for improvements in living conditions. The guards opposed the warden’s recognition of the IUC and threatened to sue the state. In August, Hopper, the warden who recognized the inmate council, was replaced by Balkcom, who stated he would never negotiate with inmate representatives. With Balkcom directing the reintegration process, it is doubtful prisoners will be given much responsibility for maintaining harmonious race relations. Yet, without seeking the help of prisoners in eliminating racial antagonism, it is difficult to foresee a reign of peace.

The ironies abound in this case of court-ordered segregation. A federal judge, the symbol in the 1960s of the federal government’s efforts to ensure equality, returned in the 1970s to the Southern way of segregating the races by law; indeed, the very judge who ended segregation at Reidsville in 1974 was responsible in 1978 for its resurrection. A civil rights group responsible for many landmark desegregation cases accepted the order to segregate without protest. A “New South” governor elected with the support of a majority of Black voters relied on an old refrain for explaining the cause of the violence. Finally, the racial violence, which segregation was expected to end, viciously reoccurred.

The judge’s decision to segregate the dormitories at Reidsville becomes one more example of the public retreat from a national commitment for racial equality. As one observer noted, “It’s interesting that a federal judge has recognized that at least in one institution a remedy against an old injustice is now itself a source of danger … (and) it’s very, very sad.”

The court’s experiment in partial segregation has proved as ineffective as wiring a fat person’s jaws to vary regular eating habits. With the artificial barrier removed, the prisoners must still try to live with members of the other race without fighting them, and prison officials must proceed with their attempts to contain violence. Segregation could not eliminate racial attacks at Reidsville unless it was expanded to include complete separation of the races at all times. No one, not even the White prisoners who want the checkerboard dormitories to continue, has suggested total segregation.

Unfortunately, the absence of moral leadership in this situation provides little encouragement that the state will be ready to adopt more costly and politically unpopular alternatives to preventing violence. Segregation has only succeeded in stimulating that dark racist side of humanity to manifest itself. For once segregated conditions are created, especially in a place where men react to problems through violence, it becomes more difficult to return to integration.

The one possibly hopeful result is that the state will finally abandon its unhealthy reliance on separation of the races as a means for overcoming racial antagonism. Surely the events of the past eight months have discredited such simplistic reasoning as integration causes racial violence, or segregation prevents it. If not, our public officials will be conceding that they lack control over the prisons and fostering inevitable triumph of racism.

Ginny Looney is a researcher studying the effects of rape on women and the ways they resolve problems caused by the assault.