Allegations of Racist Guards are Plaguing the Corrections Industry
With the number of inmates of jails and prisons quadrupling to about 2 million over the last two decades, a growing number of prisons have been built in rural, largely white areas of the country.
Many of those sent to these prisons are black and Latino, while the employees are typically mostly white. As a result, the guard-inmate relationships that develop are often fraught with tension.
This racial split "perpetuates a stereotype that goes back to the times of slavery," says Jenny Gainsborough, a policy analyst at the Sentencing Project, a liberal think tank. "It's a situation that is set up to be very racially charged."
Clallam Bay State Prison in Washington state is one such place. As of 1998, about half of those held were blacks or other minorities. At the same time, out of a staff of more than 300, black employees numbered in the single digits.
Recently, black guards at the prison won a $250,000 settlement from the Washington Department of Corrections. They had claimed that minority inmates were set up for beatings; that white guards boasted openly of their membership in the Klan and similar groups; and that black guards had been threatened.
Two of the plaintiffs described a remarkable incident near the remote prison. Lost in the countryside, they recognized a co-worker's car parked by a house and stopped to ask for directions. Upon answering the door, their colleague looked at them, pulled out a gun, and said, "Niggers aren't allowed here."
As they beat a hasty retreat, he shouted, "Remember, this area is for white people only!"
"The people we worked with out there are ex-loggers," former guard Doris Washington says. "They have never come in contact with the outside world, per se. They don't know how to deal with us because they've never been around us."
In Virginia, black and Latino inmates shipped from New Mexico and Connecticut claim they've been gratuitously hit with electroshock devices, shackled to beds for up to three days and made to lie in their own excrement.
At press time, investigations by the FBI and the Connecticut Commission of Human Rights were under way at Wallens Ridge State Prison, the prison where they were sent.
According to The Waterbury Observer, a small newspaper in Connecticut, a local activist has compiled dozens of letters from inmates supporting such claims.
One of them, sent from Connecticut to serve his time in Virginia, complained, "I was taken out of a productive environment and placed in a hostile, racist one."
Families of inmates complained of Civil War memorabilia and Confederate battle flags in local restaurants and on the cars of employees in the prison parking lot.
Officials investigating the complaints also noted a strong Confederate motif in the office of warden Stan Young — a notation that brought them a libel suit from Young, who in the end took his collection home.
As the probes continue, some 100 Connecticut prisoners have been transferred to another Virginia prison.
Although such anecdotal evidence abounds, it is virtually impossible to accurately appraise the size of the problem of racist correctional officers and institutions.
Inmates often find it difficult to bring suits, and many cases remain unreported by the media. In addition, settlements that are reached are often sealed by court order. Still, it seems clear that the problem is a serious one.
Earlier this year, Alice Huffman, director of the California chapter of the NAACP, attended a meeting where a crowd of black correctional officers aired their stories.
"There were incidents like one in which an officer had practically lost his future because he was run over by white officers," Huffman remembers. "He was horribly maimed. And I think it was based on race-hate. There were enough people there — enough cases of black men being harassed, demoted, passed over or plain run out of the system — that there was cause for me to be involved."
Watkins, the black Texas warden, says the racism of guards is often subtle. Certain black guards, for instance, avert their eyes to violence from Bloods and Crips, and some even favor gang members with extra food and other rewards. In the same way, some white guards favor Aryan Brotherhood members.
"In this environment," Watkins sighs, "the good ol' boy network is alive and well."
Lewis Steele, a New York civil rights attorney, says monetary settlements don't solve much in the long run. "Most of these [prison] systems are public," he points out. "They'll pay a little and then go on their merry way."
Steele should know. He recently settled a case for five black guards at East Jersey State Prison in Avenel, N.J., who had been threatened with retaliation, as well as Klan violence, if they revealed white officers' brutality against inmates.
The case ultimately became a class action suit and was settled for $2 million — and a consent decree governing all prison racial harassment cases in the state.
Still, when all is said and done, it should be remembered that the bulk of corrections officials are far from being white supremacists. Ashenfarb, the Jewish officer targeted in California, says colleagues have rallied around him.
"I've gotten a phenomenal amount of support from staff who said, 'This stuff has been going on around here for years.' It's come from black officers and white officers, and from a white sergeant who's married to a black sergeant and who for years has been hearing degrading racial remarks ... I thought I was going to get a backlash for speaking out. I got just the opposite."