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Discrimination and Disparity Within Correctional Institutions

Discrimination and disparity within correctional institutions; focus on race.

Discrimination and Disparity within Correctional Institutions

Despite America’s long standing battle for equality, disparity and discrimination are alive and well.  The following is an attempt to address the existence and expose the role disparity and discrimination play within the American Criminal Justice System; namely corrections.  Additionally, the following is an attempt to briefly delve into the complex question as to whether law creates discrimination or discrimination creates law.


Discrimination is a socially comfortable, or sugar coated, term for racism.  Racism is a practice which requires belief, participation, and action; whereas disparity is a belief rooted in racism (Racism, 2008).  In order to participate in racism one must first believe that a significant inequality exists, and the inequality indirectly or directly affects the greater good.  Disparity and discrimination are components that aid in keeping racism alive. Researches strongly concur that minorities are overrepresented in all 3 components of the Criminal Justice System; the police, the courts, and corrections.  However, researchers are divided as to why this disproportional representation exists (Racism, 2008).

Corrections Populations

The overrepresentation of minorities within the correctional system has created a challenge; a challenge rooted in discrimination between inmates.  Correctional institutions respond accordingly due to inmate to inmate discrimination and disparity, predominantly, yet not unanimously, based on race.  Many institutions, especially the California Department of Corrections, use an informal and unwritten protocol to separate inmates based on race, for the protection of staff and inmates alike (Robertson, 2006).  Have inmates have set the precedent for this practice, not the Criminal Justice System?  Have correctional facilities have merely responded and yielded to inmate conduct born of discrimination? “Currently, the prison is the nation’s most racialized type of real estate (Robertson, 2006).”  Many inmates must participate in the racial segregation within the corrections system in an effort to survive inside the system; some inmates who would not separate themselves by race outside of a correctional institution.  While the case of Johnson v. California challenged the practice of segregating inmates by using race as a classification, the practice is still actively implemented (Robertson, 2006).  Research indicates that many “…prison officials separate inmates into four major groups: whites, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians. They occasionally use subgroups (Chemerinsky, 2005).”  


The segregation of elderly and mentally ill inmates, as with racial segregation, is a practice that protects inmates, staff, and the facility from civil liabilities; and rightfully so.  There exists a significant inequality between elderly and mentally ill inmates in comparison to inmates qualified for general population.  Additionally, violent inmates who pose a threat to themselves, staff, and other inmates are rightly segregated from general population.  Research is inconclusive and divided as to whether racism plays a significant enough role in inmate violence (Robertson, 2006).

Chicken or the Egg

Did law create discrimination and disparity or did the two create law?  In the case of Johnson v. California, as mentioned previously, the Jim Crow Laws and the oxymoronic concept of “…separate but equal” were used as a foundation to uproot and overturn the practice of segregating inmates.  An average individual would thus be compelled to ask themselves if America’s historical discriminatory, namely slavery and segregation outside of incarceration, practices are to blame for current discriminating practices within the Criminal Justice System.  Furthermore, would there be a seemingly intense need to separate inmate’s based on race in the absence of such historical discriminatory factors.  Despite, this food for thought the fact remains that many correctional institutions continue to separate inmates according to race under the pretense of protecting the system, or specific facility, as a whole.

Numerous examples of discrimination and disparity can be found within the Criminal Justice System at differing degrees within the components.  Many examples of such are disguised, overlooked, sugar-coated, or morphed into law.  Within the concentrated realm of corrections, the American Criminal Justice system should implement an intense Nation wide effort, response, and appropriate programming to combat the issues of segregation within the corrections system; and not merely surrender to segregation as an easier softer way. 


Chemerinsky, E. (May 2005). A civil rights victory for prisoners. Trial, 41, 5. p.76 (2). Retrieved July 26, 2009, from General OneFile via Gale:

Robertson, J., E. (Spring 2006). Foreword: ’separate but equal’ in prison: Johnson v. California and common sense racism. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 96, 3. p.795 (54). Retrieved July 26, 2009, from General OneFile via Gale:

Criminal Justice System. (2008). In John Moore (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, Vol. 1(pp. 360-362). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved July 22, 2009, from Gale Virtual Reference Library via Gale:

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