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Guarding Against Hate

Prison officials faced with white supremacist employees must act or face potentially expensive court disputes.

Wallace Weicherding was not your ordinary sergeant for the Illinois Department of Corrections. In addition to his duties as a guard at Graham Correctional Center, Weicherding was an avowed white supremacist.

He frequently used Ku Klux Klan hand signals and phrases like "weiss macht" (German for "white power"). His watch had an Aryan Nations flag on its face. He even had a "White Pride/Worldwide" bumper sticker on his car.

Weicherding did not stop with open displays of his white supremacist beliefs. He actively recruited for the Klan. He passed out a flyer to fellow employees promoting a Klan rally on his property, featuring a speech by Weicherding's national Klan leader and a cross burning.

Weicherding even appeared on a local television news program to promote the rally. The newscast identified Weicherding as an employee of the prison, and it was then that Weicherding's troubles began.

Word that one of the guards was a Klansman quickly spread through the prison's inmate population. Graham's warden, Kenneth Dobucki, immediately suspended Weicherding and initiated an investigation into both his on-the-job conduct and his involvement with the Klan.

Eventually, Dobucki terminated Weicherding for engaging in conduct unbecoming an officer.

Weicherding sued, claiming that the firing violated his First Amendment rights. But the court disagreed.

Noting both the prison's racially charged atmosphere and the fact that avoiding racial violence is essential to the prison's operations, the court held that "the state's interests in maintaining safety and avoiding racial violence at Graham outweigh[ed] Weicherding's interests in associating with and promoting the Klan." Weicherding v. Riegel, 160 F.3d 1139, 1143 (7th Cir. 1998).

Hostile Work Environment
Weicherding's case is not unique. In most cases where prison guards have been fired for their white supremacist activities, the courts have sided with the prison administration. But despite this fact, many prison officials turn a blind eye to white supremacist activities among their staffs.

Whether prison officials do so because they are too timid to act, hope the problem will go away, or are secretly sympathetic to the racist cause, they run the risk not only of creating an explosive situation among the inmate population, but also of claims of a "hostile work environment" by other prison employees.

The number of suits against correctional systems claiming hostile work environments is a testament to degree to which some prison administrators have ignored the problem of racist guards.

Hundreds of correctional officers in at least 13 states have filed hostile work environment suits alleging racist violence and harassment by their colleagues, and more than $5 million has been paid out so far.

Usually such suits end with out-of-court settlements that contain no admission of guilt on the part of the offending persons, institutions, or departments.

Some hostile work environment suits by prison guards seek systemic change in addition to monetary damages. Take, for example, the case of five black prison guards in Rahway, N.J., who experienced a pervasive atmosphere of racial hostility.

White officers and commanders subjected them to racial slurs, placed a Klan photograph on a bulletin board, scrawled "go back to Africa" on sentry boxes and threatened Klan retaliation if brutality against inmates was reported.

The situation came to a head when a white guard who was trying to help the black officers found a dead rat splattered against the windshield of his car in the prison parking lot. He also was called "a traitor to the purity of the white race."

The black guards filed suit in 1993. Walter Holland, one of the plaintiffs, explained that they were "tired of going through the normal channels and getting no response" and that it was time for the taxpayers to know that "their money [was] being used to promote racism and bigotry in the department."

Their attorney, Lewis Steele, believed that the normal result in such cases — simple monetary settlements with correctional institutions — do not accomplish much.

"Most of these systems are public," he points out. "They'll pay a little and then go on their merry way." So he set his sights on something else.

"One of the things we tried to establish up front was that the major objective of the suit was to change the system," says Steele. "We looked for lead plaintiffs who had that kind of objective, who were interested in reform rather than just money."

In the end, Steele not only won a $2 million settlement for his clients; he also crafted a consent decree that established a centralized mechanism in New Jersey for addressing racial harassment cases.

An Entrenched Problem
But Steele's hope for systemic change may have been premature. Less than three years after the consent decree was approved, 16 black officers at another New Jersey prison filed another hostile work environment suit claiming that prison officials refused to investigate Klan recruiting activities that the officers brought to their attention.

Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that they were passed over for promotions, unfairly given dangerous work assignments, and subjected to racial slurs, swastikas and Confederate flags. They seek $8 million in damages.

At the end of the day, one thing is clear: White supremacist guards can cause serious problems in prisons. Courts have given prison administrators the means to deal with the problems caused by such guards — they can fire them.

If prison officials hesitate, they are likely to face problems from more than just racist guards.