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.
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.
'Brotherhoods' of Guards
In many cases, guards take matters into their own hands, rather than delegating violence to prisoners. Some of these "guard gangs" organize around themes of physical strength and a shared animosity to prisoners.
At Portland's Multnomah County Jail, two guards sporting brand new "Brotherhood of the Strong" tattoos allegedly beat up an inmate this August, and were rumored to be recruiting others into their clique. They since have been placed on paid administrative leave by the sheriff's department.
The guards had been introduced to the tattoo design by a temporary employee from Hawaii, according to Undersheriff Mel Hedgpeth. Following the beating, concern that a dangerous guard gang might be forming prompted the department to send an investigator to Hawaii.
What was discovered there, says Hedgpeth, was a group of "Brotherhood of the Strong" prison guards of various races who "definitely pushed the edge of excessive use of force."
Sometimes, groups of guards are openly white supremacist.
According to evidence compiled by scholar Kelsey Kauffman — evidence that has not been corroborated in any official investigation — a group of employees known as "The Brotherhood" has plagued Putnamville State Prison in Greenville, Ind., for years. Kauffman says members have targeted minority inmates — along with fellow correctional system employees they didn't approve of.
A white woman who worked as a cook at Putnamville says that after she reported a Brotherhood member for calling her a "nigger-lover" and "bitch" in front of inmates, he "drew his arm back and said, 'I'll smash your fucking face right here, bitch.' " Her account, Kauffman says, was corroborated by eight inmates.
Another female staff member reported that a Brotherhood member had threatened her with violence from the Klan. Although nothing occurred, the woman resigned, fearing for her safety and that of her family.
The Brotherhood, Kauffman says, has plastered swastikas on prison walls and assaulted inmates and others. One black inmate, whose story was corroborated by 10 others, said he was threatened and assaulted by a Brotherhood member.
Two shop employees reportedly admitted that they'd boasted to another black inmate about their supposed membership in the Klan.
One guard donned a Klan hood and taunted a black inmate — and was suspended for five days as a result.
Indiana state police conducted an investigation of Kauffman's charges, but said they found no evidence of organized hate activity among guards. Nevertheless, Kauffman says she has plenty of evidence to support her allegations, and in fact she is continuing to meet with prison officials and legislators looking into the matter.
Another guard group calling itself The Brotherhood has apparently surfaced in Florida as well. A black officer — who says is afraid to reveal his name for fear of retaliation — says that he and a black co-worker in an Orlando jail received death threats from the group of about 15 white officers.
When he told a superior, the guard says that he was told, "You'd better not talk about that."
Guards as Victims
As the cases of the two Brotherhood gangs in Indiana and Florida make clear, minority guards and other prison employees are victimized — by their own colleagues — just as minority inmates often are. Some recent cases:
- In Florida, about 100 black officers are represented in two class action suits alleging racial harassment. Officer Roy Hughes, for instance, says that when he entered his colonel's office in 1997, he noticed the following "hunting license" on his walls: "OPEN SEASON ON PORCH MONKEYS ... Daily kills limited to ten."
Others reported encounters with white officers bearing Klan tattoos. One found his office ransacked and "KKK" daubed on his bulletin board.
- Alan Ashenfarb, a Jewish officer at San Quentin State Prison near Sacramento, Calif., recently sued the state for allowing "a constant pattern of anti-Semitic speaking and sloganeering ... all of which have fostered an anti-Semitic environment."
He describes anti-Semitic jokes, neo-Nazi and SS graffiti around the prison, and a physical assault that he suffered. After he sued, he discovered a slip of paper in his mailbox that was marked with a swastika.
- In Nebraska, 32 officers have filed suit, alleging racial harassment.
- In Washington and Texas, ranking officials have been threatened by their own employees. Richard Watkins, the black warden of a Huntsville, Texas, unit, says that he received four death threats, at least two of which were made by white staffers.
Philip Stanley, the white superintendent of Washington Corrections Center, Shelton, received an inflammatory note during an investigation into alleged white supremacist activity at the facility. It was signed by a guard describing himself as "white and pissed" who was subsequently fired.
- When Sgt. Noel Gonzalez, a Latino officer in New York, complained about racial harassment, he was ordered by his superiors to run two miles while lugging a truck tire. He eventually collapsed and landed in the hospital.
Gonzalez quit after finding hangman's nooses and daubed Ku Klux Klan slogans at home and at work. In 1997, he won a $550,000 settlement.
- Orlando Edwards, a black officer in Michigan, says he was fired when he filed a race discrimination complaint, driving him to attempt suicide. For his pain and suffering, a jury awarded Edwards $1 million dollars this August.
The Diversity Deficit
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."