The Color Line Persists
One of the persistent and enduring issues in prisoner management is maintaining control and order. Keeping the peace is critical when confining criminals. Inmate classification is the key to keeping order, and sorting and splitting the inmate population into similar groups enhances order, safety, and predictability. Even inmates like predictability.
In early American prisons, particularly among male convicts, the population was typically split along age and criminal sophistication. Young were kept from old, and the hardened criminals were kept from the “rubes” or less experienced offenders. Most important, prison managers separated prisoners by race. The classification and treatment of prisoners based on race emerged early on as one of the most persistent features of prison regimes across the country.1 Indeed, one of America’s earliest experiments with the penitentiary, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, was rife with racial segregation. More than 100 years after this penitentiary admitted its first prisoner, inmates at Eastern State remained grouped and sorted by race. As Johnston remarked of Eastern State in the 1940s: “The institution was largely segregated. In the late 1940s African Americans—whose number rose from less than a third of the population before the war to more than half in 1948—were housed in cellblock four and the ground floor of cellblock five…Cellblocks seven and twelve were entirely white.”2
Segregation by race was not limited to housing arrangements, and it pervaded every aspect of prison life in Eastern State and at other early U.S. penal institutions. Prisoners were routinely segregated by race in work and field assignments, grooming facilities (e.g., inmate barbershops, showers), and dining areas.3 Even recreational activities, such as prisoner sports teams and