Charles Jackson and Collins Bailey, two of only a handful of African-American prison guards working at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center about 40 miles west of Port Angeles, were lost. They'd been on the way to an outdoor barbecue when the sun went down, turning the winding country roads of the state's north peninsula into a shadowy maze. They drove around aimlessly until they came upon a familiar car parked in a drive- way. It belonged to a white co-worker at the prison, a man rumored to hold racist beliefs. At least one fellow guard claimed to have overheard him brag of membership in the Ku Klux Klan. But lost is lost, so the two headed up the walk to the front door. They knocked a couple of times. When the white guard answered and saw two black men standing on his stoop, he pulled out a gun and pointed it in their direction. "Didn't you read the sign?" he asked. "Niggers aren't allowed here." The man's wife, also a guard at the prison, joined her husband at the front door—they started to laugh, creating an eerie scene. "In a case like that, where we are stereotyped," explains Jackson, "we didn't want to act like they think we act. I wanted to knock him out. I said a couple of curse words and we proceeded on our way." As they headed for the car, Jackson says, one of the guards called out, "Remember, this area is for white people only and read the signs next time!"
If Jackson and Bailey were the kind to let signs stand in their way, they never would have applied for jobs at the Department of Corrections in the first place. They and other current and former black employees from across the state say the department is rife with racism and that they frequently receive, through word and gesture, a message similar to the one posted by the white guard: We don't want minorities here. The sentiment manifests itself in a number of ways, including a daily barrage of racist language—like referring to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as "Happy Nigger Day" at Clallam Bay.
Two groups of black guards, one from Clallam Bay and one from the Washington Corrections Center at Shelton, have recently filed lawsuits against the DOC, hoping to draw attention to the department's policies and force change. Last July, Jackson, Bailey, Doris Washington, Earnest Grimes, and Valinda Andrea—current and former officers at Clallam Bay—filed a $500,000 suit claiming that they'd been subjected to a racially hostile environment. The guards describe a frightening atmosphere where white officers refer to blacks as "coons" and worse; where minority inmates are targeted for beatings; where black officers receive threats; and where white guards feel comfortable enough to brag in front of other employees of membership in hate groups like the KKK.
And just last week, a second group of black officers, from Shelton, filed a similar suit making similar claims. Kevin Waller and Larry Harris, along with white officer Jeannette Hawkes, say that white supremacist beliefs are alive and well at the institution and that racist behavior has made it almost impossible to succeed in performing their jobs. At some points they even feared for their safety: When Hawkes reported hate-group activities to her superiors, her complaints were leaked, and she says she was threatened at home and retaliated against at work. When Waller reported similar behavior, including the dissemination of racist literature at the prison and active recruitment for the Neo Nazi Party, he says he was labeled a "snitch" and denied promotions. The situation at the prison became so contentious that the Washington State Patrol was called in to investigate. The 1998 findings, obtained exclusively by Seattle Weekly, reveal a workplace divided along racial lines. They also allege that at least two members of organized hate groups had worked at the institution for almost a decade.
Complaints of racism have come from points all over the state, including the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, and McNeil Island Corrections Center. Figures from the state's Division of Risk Management show that the DOC has paid $2,747,106 in employee civil rights claims since 1989, the third-worst record among state agencies. More than $500,000 of that total went out to state prison employees claiming race discrimination. "I think [the DOC] is one of the most poorly managed agencies in the state," says Eugene St. John, executive director of the Washington Public Employees Association, which represents 300 of the state's prison employees. "Their record on employee relations is abysmal. They are sued more by their employees than other agencies. Others would take those complaints and charges, all measures of their lack of success, as a need for change. This agency never looked at it that way."
Michael Schwartz and Lois Meltzer, both Seattle attorneys, represent the plaintiffs in the Clallam Bay and Shelton suits. "It seems to me that the system is simply rife with racism," says Schwartz. "It's pervasive." It's not a big shock to him that there are "bigoted individuals" working for the DOC. "It's just our society. What bothers me more than anything is the institutional support for those individuals. And I absolutely, firmly believe that this could not happen to the extent it does and for the length of time it does without institutional support."
Sieg Heil in Shelton
Perhaps no state prison is in worse shape than Shelton. Black workers say they're subjected to racial slurs and white supremacist activity at work, including Heil Hitler salutes in the hallways and the distribution of hate literature. White officers claim "reverse discrimination"—that management favors minorities. The situation came to a boil a few years ago when two black employees, Sgt. Clan Jacobs and Lt. Waller, a plaintiff in the case filed against Shelton, were blamed for creating a list of 11 white employees said to belong to, or have knowledge about, hate groups.
The bulk of the names were given to an investigator at the prison by Jeannette Hawkes, also a plaintiff in the suit, because she had been hearing complaints about racist activity and wanted someone to look into them. Unfortunately, the investigator promptly leaked the information to some of the people named on the list. Threats ensued. There was damage to vehicles in the parking lot and grievances were filed. A longtime white guard was fired after making negative remarks about black people: He was carted out in front of his co-workers as one black employee is supposed to have said, "There goes one of those white supremacists now!" A couple of white employees, believing they were under fire, posted big, hand-painted signs at the entrance to the prison that read, "DOC UNFAIR TO WHITE STAFF" and "WHITE'S NO CIVIL RIGHTS" [sic].
Growing unrest was kept under wraps by prison superintendent Phillip Stanley as employees complained that nothing was done to calm flaring tempers. Finally, in early 1997, Stanley received this letter:
Congratulations. You have succeeded in dividing white staff from black staff. Never again will white staff trust black supervisors or black officers. Never again will any white officer or other white staff dare criticize any black staff member for fear of being escorted out of the institution like Officer[Doug]Schley. You have managed to destroy morale due to your underhanded and blatant preference towards blacks. Those of us "lucky" enough to have avoided being named on Wallers [sic] list don't feel any less anger and hatred towards him, and you for listening to him, than those on the list. Why don't you and your little butt buddy captain go back to rapo rivers where you came from and sing some of those inmates happy birthday together.
If a long time good officer like Schley hasn't beaten the shit out of you yet, he has shown more restraint than many of us would have. Ever worked for the Post Office?
white and pissed
Expecting an employee to "go postal" on him, Stanley called in outside help, alerting the Mason County Sheriff's deputies. DOC secretary Joseph Lehman, noting "rumors of White Supremacist activity" and "verbal confrontations among staff," enlisted the Washington State Patrol, which interviewed staff and turned over a complicated final report early last year. The unredacted February 1998 findings, mistakenly sent to state prison inmate and editor of Prison Legal News, Paul Wright, were forwarded to Seattle Weekly.
They indicate that Doug Schley and Lee Keller were at the heart of a small group of officers co-workers claimed disliked African Americans. The two bragged about white supremacist beliefs, according to the patrol report, and tried to convince others to follow their path. One female prison staffer who rented rooms to the two in 1995 told investigators, "One day, I went into Schley's room to turn off the heater when I saw in his room 'Nazi' armbands, and a picture of Hitler next to his son's picture." After months of listening to the two espouse the values of "purifying" the races, she said she asked them to leave.
"It was learned that Keller and Schley both spoke often of their belief in the Nazi ideology and the ideas of Adolf Hitler," says the report. "It became evident during the investigation Keller and Schley collected Nazi paraphernalia and possessed hate literature." The two have since been fired. Schley was the officer escorted out of the prison in 1997 for making a series of overtly racist remarks on the job. When a black inmate appeared confused about when to come to the pill line for his medication, Schley said, "Who says they're as smart as us?" To a group of Hispanic inmates, he allegedly said, "Way down on the border I wish you would go. Go back to your country, we don't want you no more." He topped off that poem by commenting in a Mexican accent: "Do you want me to impregnate your daughter?" He also was accused of saying, "All niggers should be lined up and shot." Schley admitted making some of the comments, chalking them up to a "free exchange of ideas," but said they were taken out of context.
Keller, it turned out, was actually "white and pissed," the employee who wrote the letter to Stanley. He was fired in 1998 under protest. According to DOC documents, he claimed to have no idea how anyone could have interpreted the letter as threatening; he only wanted to point out the fragile state of employee relations.
The patrol interviewed employees who singled out other, current, staffers who may hold similar beliefs to Keller and Schley. Officer Bruce Chunn, by his own admission once a close friend of Keller, "stated he had taken racist literature from inmates and placed it in an R Unit control booth," according to the report. Chunn said the materials were on their way to be destroyed, but the report notes that there is a specific protocol for the destruction of "contraband" that doesn't "call for the literature to be left in an R Unit control booth prior to . . . disposal."
Officers Paul Torgramsen and Michael Malpass were implicated as well. Malpass was said to have been with Schley and Keller when the signs were posted at the end of the prison drive. Though he denies participating, he does admit to having had a sign in his car window that read, "I support the signs." And two witnesses said they saw Torgramsen raise his arm in a Heil Hitler salute at work. Though Torgramsen told patrol investigators that "the only racism I have seen at WCC is black racism," the report notes that "Torgramsen was also alleged to have often called minority inmates by derogatory names." Some co-workers complained that Chunn, Malpass, and Torgramsen contributed to a hostile work environment and made them feel unsafe. In fact, lawsuit plaintiff Hawkes says that after giving information to investigators, Chunn called her at home and said she was going to be labeled a "snitch" and that "whites are not going to like you because you gave up one of your own, and the blacks will not like you because you are not one of their own."
Torgramsen, Chunn, Malpass, and Keller declined to be interviewed for this story; Schley could not be located (and his attorney didn't return repeated calls from Seattle Weekly). But, according to the patrol report, Chunn and Malpass maintain they have never been involved in racist or white supremacist activity, while Schley asserts that "what occurs away from the worksite is my civil right." Chunn, Malpass, and Schley recently filed suits against the department claiming that since being falsely associated with hate activity via "the list" they've faced a hostile work environment, to the point of fearing for their lives. Reached at their homes, Keller and Torgramsen said they have suits in the works as well, though they declined to comment further or provide legal contacts.
Jacobs and Waller were blamed by white officers for much of the trouble at Shelton. Jacobs says he even received threats at home. According to the tort claim he filed in preparation for his own suit against the department, which hasn't yet been filed, "Since April, I have had six or seven harassing phone calls to my house. They never say anything when I answer the phone, but when my wife does they say stuff like 'You niggers get out of town, we'll burn you out.'" He says he reported many incidents of racism to his superiors but to no avail. "All the times I have reported something, nothing has ever been done. Only when Superintendent Stanley received a direct threat to himself in the letter he got, did they finally decide to stop ignoring this problem."
Jacobs and Waller suspect they've been targeted because they are outspoken and hold fairly high-ranking jobs within the department—Jacobs is a sergeant and Waller is a lieutenant at a prison where only two out of six lieutenants and three out of 50 sergeants are non-white. It's been tough to move up in the DOC (Jacobs was promoted only after filing a discrimination suit in 1991, for which he was paid $35,000) and in some ways it's even tougher now that they have to supervise a largely white force.
Shelton Superintendent Stanley was replaced in late 1997 by Jim Blodgett, who says he's whipped the prison into shape. One of his first moves, he says, was to call a staff-wide meeting and declare that racist behavior was not acceptable. "My feeling is that those issues have been resolved," he says. "All I could do was come in and say that these things will not be tolerated, that people will be fired." He also met with some of the more troublesome guards one on one. "I had individual meetings with some of these people," he says. "I talked about the perceptions. In most cases those things were denied, and since I had no concrete proof of them, I relayed to them what my expectations were and that we would start from this date and it wouldn't be tolerated." He says he's heard of no problems since.
But the fact that lawsuits are being filed on both sides of the issue seems to indicate that harsh feelings live on. Jacobs says the State Patrol report—which found no "organized" racist behavior at Shelton—was inadequate. "No misconduct was discovered and no punishment implemented," he wrote in his tort claim. "Consequently, the racially hostile work environment continues to thrive."
Small towns and small minds
Many of Washington's major prisons are located in small towns or remote regions of the state. Shelton is a couple of hours south of Seattle, just west of Olympia. Walla Walla is stashed east and south, past the Tri-Cities in wheat country. And McNeil Island is, as the name suggests, located on an island south of Tacoma and only accessible by prison boat. Because the prisons are cut off geographically, they tend to be cut off from outside influence. They are often staffed by friends and relatives. And they reflect the racial makeup of rural Washington—in other words, they're mostly white.
DOC secretary Lehman recognizes the "challenge" in recruiting minorities, who he says are underrepresented in the labor market. In a perfect world he'd like to see the staff match the racial makeup of the prison population and he says the department is headed in that direction: "Historically, over time, I think we have been relatively successful." But a look at the numbers shows that the DOC has a long way to go. While more than one-third of the more than 14,000 state prison inmates are of minority descent, only 14 percent of DOC employees are minorities. When you break out African Americans, the comparison becomes even worse: While 23 percent of inmates are black, only 6 percent of DOC employees are black. Faces of color are so rare at some facilities that during a recent survey, a black DOC employee noted that he had visited an unnamed remote state prison where the receptionist was visibly shaken by his arrival. "I'm sorry," she told him. "I've never met a black person." The employee decided not to spend the night in the area "due to safety issues."
No prison feels as remote as Clallam Bay, which is tucked away in the northwest corner of the state, across the Olympics, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It's so sealed off, in fact, that the prison had trouble finding and keeping employees when it first opened in 1986. The turnover rate in the early days often reached 30 percent. But all that changed when, in 1989, the state set up a program called TIDES, which was designed to transform unemployed loggers into prison guards in just nine weeks. Twelve sessions and more than 200 converts later, the partnership between the DOC, the Olympic Job Training Center, and Peninsula College has been declared a success. Diane Harrison, curriculum specialist for TIDES, says unemployment is down in the area and prison turnover has dropped to around 8 percent.
But cycling mostly locals through the prison has meant that the facility is infused with less and less new blood. Especially lacking are people of color. "The people we work with out there are ex-loggers," says former guard Doris Washington, a plaintiff in the suit against Clallam Bay. "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." Though the prison has one of the highest percentages of minority inmates in the state—47.9 percent—only 9 percent of employees are minorities. Of 326 employees, only four are black.
Washington felt immediately isolated upon showing up at the prison for work in 1993. She remembers hang-up calls at her home. Sometimes the caller would call her "bitch" or threaten to "kick your ass." The area is beautiful, she says, "but if I'm driving up or down the street, the cops are going to pull me over. The intimidation was always there about running someone off the road on the way home from work, where there are no lights and lots of cliffs." Washington remembers that feelings of physical danger were "an everyday thing." She says she developed severe headaches. "I didn't know what to expect every time I walked into the gate." She was fired in November 1997, but is appealing that decision.
The "lack of socialization" at the prison, as Washington refers to it, resulted in a long list of discriminatory situations. The Clallam Bay plaintiffs say they were set up by co-workers so that inmates would think they were "snitches" or "Uncle Toms." And they were constantly subjected to insulting behavior. Washington says she witnessed fellow workers calling blacks "crack heads, dope dealers, pimps, and too illiterate to spell their own names," according to her complaint. She says when she complained about the language and other mistreatment of blacks to her supervisors, she was called a "nigger lover." Black inmates were set up for beatings, they say, and when Washington or any of the other plaintiffs in the case protested, they were further ostracized.
The plaintiffs claim to have been denied promotions, despite being qualified for higher positions. DOC statistics show that while the prison does employ an Asian captain, all of its 12 lieutenants are white. Of 47 sergeants, four are Native American, two are Hispanic, and none are black. Collins Bailey has a solid background in law enforcement, having served in Desert Storm as a military police officer and in the National Guard fighting the drug war at the Canadian border. Yet, he had a hard time moving up the ranks at Clallam Bay. After unsuccessful interviews for investigator positions, he would ask what he could do better next time. "I got answers like you need more computer experience or you didn't sell yourself enough," he recalls. "Something you can't even track down." Bailey finally transferred to the state prison at Monroe where he says he's been given more responsibility.
"Most of the minority employees who came to work at Clallam Bay were transferring out or quit because of the racism," says Joseph Fitzpatrick, a retired white captain who worked at various state prisons before leaving the DOC in 1996. "There was a group in there that I considered Aryan Nation-type guys. They wanted to get rid of all the blacks and wanted it to be a white man's prison. Administration knows all this is going on and they just feed the fire."
Even if the department were recruiting enough minority employees, argues Schwartz, it has failed to institute policies that require fair treatment. "I think that for too long the DOC and the state have ignored the fact that [prisons] are going into areas where social education is lacking," he says. He believes the state has an obligation to educate. "You can't plop a prison down there and bring in people who have no understanding of minorities and put minorities in that situation with them and walk away. There has to be some education and training that goes with it so the whole program will work. I think it's a responsibility and I think the DOC and the state have failed."
Breaking up the White Regime
Current and former employees make the point over and over again that racist employees are allowed to act with the knowledge that they won't be punished in any way. According to DOC records dating back to 1995 (the earliest entered into their new database), only four employees have been disciplined or fired for racist behavior:
Doug Schley, who was fired for racist remarks in 1997.
Larry "Lucky" Lauzon, a construction and maintenance supervisor at Shelton, who received a three-month pay reduction in 1997. According to DOC records, he was talking with fellow employees about a missing plaque on a local statue when he said, "Mexicans probably stole it. The only thief worse is an Indian." One of the co-workers happened to be part Mexican and part Indian and complained. He had, at a previous time, also been quoted as saying, "Niggers are living proof that the Indians fucked the buffalo. At least that's better than being a Mexican." Lauzon defended himself by saying that his comments were taken out of context and that he'd never use the word "nigger."
Terry Grindstaff, an officer at Walla Walla, who received a pay reduction in 1996 after he drew a hooded figure surrounded by the words "Boys of the Hood" and "White Pride" and kicked it under the cell door of a black inmate. Grindstaff claimed it was "not a racist act" but that he did it because he thought it was funny.
Kenneth Holdaas, a sergeant at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, who received a pay reduction in 1997 for saying to an officer, in reference to blacks, "You can smell them. They got a distinct odor, like RB. He showers every day, and their big deal is they put deodorant and so much shit on. . . . " Holdaas claimed his comments had been "twisted out of any recognition" until he found out they had been videotaped.
Given that so few are punished for behavior that allegedly happens on a daily basis, is it any wonder that racist workers—especially supervisors—feel protected? "We should not tolerate it," says Secretary Lehman. "I've seen disciplinary reports and corrective action where people were held accountable and that's what we need to do. The challenge in dealing with this is not in the severity of the punishment, it's in the consistency. That's what we've got to work toward." He adds that he thinks the problem is not widespread, but mainly due to a group of bad apples.
Sgt. Harris has a different take. In his view, nobody's going to stop racist behavior unless there are consequences from the top. "Historically, the prison system has been run by whites," he says. "In the past 30 years there has been a significant increase of minority employees. When you have an influx of educated minorities coming in, you have officers offended by that. You have senior management who have been in the system for years who have racist feelings and these feelings are surfacing. But, if money was going to be taken out of [a supervisor's] pocket, he would put an immediate stop to it."
Clearly, Lehman sees racism in his department as a significant problem. In late 1997, his office hired Executive Diversity Services Inc. to survey 56 employees of varying rank, gender, and race to collect suggestions for how to improve racial harmony within the system and improve opportunities for minorities. Respondents were asked a set of questions about the DOC: "What are they doing to handle racial issues well? How are they not handling racial issues well or how might they improve?" Responses ranged from a suggestion that racial issues be resolved before they "get too big" to statements addressing the need for promotional opportunities and minority role models at the top.
Executive Diversity recommended that the DOC establish a mentoring program. "We in fact have the beginnings of a career development program that involves a mentoring program," says Lehman. But such a program is hardly going to solve the apparently complex and deep racial problems in the DOC. Nor is more diversity training—the department has undertaken hundreds of hours of training over the years and obviously it hasn't transformed those who need it most.
To that, Lehman says there's a new effort afoot to hold employees responsible for their actions and the actions of their subordinates. "We in management within the DOC, here and across the system, have to communicate that we value a diverse workforce," he says. "Then we have to toe the line. Where inappropriate behavior exists, we have to deal with it. There can be no equivocation."
Only time will tell whether the DOC will actually make the changes Lehman describes and whether such changes will make a real difference. In the end, it may take a couple of successful lawsuits to shake things up. And though plaintiffs like Doris Washington have been fighting since the day they joined the department, they're committed to pushing just a little further. Besides monetary compensation, they're looking to alter the face of the department. "At least somebody coming in behind me won't have to experience the hell I went through," says Washington. "I want to break up the whole white regime."