Allegations of Racist Guards are Plaguing the Corrections Industry
When unruly inmates in Texas created a disturbance in their fourth-floor cellblock, they surely expected some sort of reprimand. Bruce Parker, a supervisor at Houston's Harris County Jail, delivered one they wouldn't soon forget.
Calling the prisoners "niggers," Parker allegedly went on to threaten them with violence. He announced to his charges that he was "down with the KKK," and had been a Ku Klux Klan member, in fact, since the age of 25.
Parker, who was fired following the July incident, isn't the only corrections officer who's invoked the Klan or white supremacist ideology to teach inmates — and sometimes other guards and even wardens — who's boss.
In at least six states, guards have appeared in mock Klan attire in recent years, and guards have been accused of race-based threats, beatings and even shootings in 10 states.
In addition, suits have been filed in at least 13 states by black guards alleging racist harassment or violence from their own colleagues.
And uncounted settlements have been reached in civil cases filed by guards or inmates where damages are sealed by court order — making the true dimensions of the problem difficult to pin down.
Behind the thick walls and razor wire of America's corrections facilities, there are guards who promote violence and racial animosity. Instead of trying to contain the problems that rack our nation's prisons — like the race-based gangs into which many prisoners are organized — they conspire to make them worse.
"Prisons and jails are the most racially divisive institutions in America," says Kelsey Kauffman, an expert on racism and violence among prison officials who recently completed a study of a big Indiana prison.
"All too often, employees act out on their own racial antagonisms, individually or collectively. In the volatile prison world, the results can be very dangerous for everyone."
A World Defined by Race
An offender entering prison today is typically greeted by race-based gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, the Aryan Circle, the Bloods, the Crips, the Mexican Mafia. By any measure, these groups make for menacing neighbors.
The groups differ. The Aryan Brotherhood, for instance, was born in the prisons as a violent and white supremacist gang, while Crips and Bloods trace their roots to economically motivated black street gangs on the outside.
Some groups are essentially organized crime families, while others concentrate on racist ideology. But they all contribute to a prison world that is divided by race and largely ruled by violence.
Even for a new inmate uninterested in racist ideology, it is often a matter of survival to join up with one or another gang. Failing that, many weaker inmates fall prey to rape, extortion and violence from those around them.
The result is prisons largely organized by race.
"The whole nature of the prison subculture has changed," explains Dan MacAllair, associate director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "It used to be order was maintained through a loose understanding between guards and inmates. And there was an inmate code, a sense of solidarity among inmates. Now, the inmate code has broken down. Prisons have subdivided [along racial lines].
"It wasn't as bad before."
What's more, some guards actually help the gangs thrive by favoring one or another group. "Staff, either through commission or omission, are supporting this activity," senior warden Richard Watkins says of the problems in his own Holliday prison unit in Huntstville,Texas. "It couldn't happen by itself."
Thrust into this fractured and unstable world, most guards do their best to maintain order and peace. Faced always with the constant threat of violence, the vast majority toe the line between control of inmates and retaliation.
They resist the types of transformations that occurred in a famous psychology experiment once conducted by Philip Zimbardo and Craig Haney, in which college students charged with keeping their peer "inmates" became hardened and abusive in a short time.
But there are those who become embroiled in the battles they see around them, and a certain number wage brutal offensives of their own.
Life in the 'Aryan Tank'
When black inmates arrived at California's Corcoran prison in 1995, dozens of guards wearing black gloves and tape over their nametags reportedly were performing a bizarre routine of quasi-athletic drills. Then the guards shackled the new arrivals and allegedly pummeled them with batons, boots and fists.
For good measure, the inmates allegedly were forced to stand barefoot on scalding asphalt, leaving many of their feet marked with severe, third-degree burns.
The brutality meted out by the group of largely white guards — a gang that called itself "The Sharks" — was clearly racist. The group's existence, in fact, was revealed by a rare black guard member — a man nicknamed "Bonecrusher" — who became a whistleblower partly because of its racist nature. It was publicized by The Los Angeles Times, which relied on internal memos and interviews.
"I've seen guards beat inmates, but nothing ever like that," said Connie Foster, a former prison canteen operator who witnessed the incident — and who told a reporter that she was never contacted by state investigators.
"I couldn't watch it all. After it was over, I went to my car and threw up."
Three senior officers were fired in connection with the activities of The Sharks, and another five were demoted. According to the L.A. Times, the state attorney general's office merely reviewed paperwork in the incident. Ultimately, the officers fought the disciplinary measures, and they were all reinstated.
There were other allegations of guard brutality at Corcoran as well. Investigators looked into the fatal shootings of seven unarmed inmates over the course of five years — shootings that allegedly occurred during "cockfights" that guards staged between inmates. But this June, the guards were acquitted of all criminal charges.
Afterward, critics attacked state officials for allegedly blocking the probe and jurors for embracing defendants following the verdict.
Still, two civil suits in connection with the violence at Corcoran were successful. The family of Preston Tate, an inmate who died, won a judgment of $825,000. Former officer Richard Caruso won a $1.7 million settlement after he accused the Department of Corrections of retaliating against him for coming forward to help the FBI investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
Similar reports of staged battles have emerged from the recently closed Tulsa County Jail in Oklahoma. Black inmates were allegedly forced into a cell known as the "Aryan Tank," where they were made to face down inmates they later described as "white supremacists."
Although Undersheriff Bill Thompson would say the resulting brawl derived from a "legitimate attempt to integrate a cell," a black and a white inmate — both of whom were caught in the melee that they said had been staged by guards — each won $25,000 settlements.
In another case in the same facility, a single white inmate was placed with 19 black inmates in a cell known as the "Gladiator Tank" for the frequent battles there. Jason Stanford, who suffered a concussion and was slashed with broken glass in the beating that followed, won a $65,000 settlement as a result.