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Racism in the Ranks

By W. Wisely

Agroup of prison guards at the California Institute for Men, in Chino, call themselves SPONGE, an acronym for the "Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything." In Wasco prison, a guard wears a sheet over his head while working a cellblock. In Folsom, a swastika is carved into the butt of a guard's rifle. These are just a few examples of racism within the ranks of the California prison system as documented by complaints, lawsuits, and State Personnel Board records.

"A wedge is being driven through staff, between white and minority officers, like you wouldn't believe," said Sgt. Jim Ashe, a black officer who works at New Folsom. "And it's going to get a lot worse if management ignores it. It won't go away on its own," the guard told a reporter for The Sacramento Bee .

The Department of Corrections employs more than 42,000 people -- the largest executive-branch agency in the state. It leads all other agencies in minority hiring at 47 percent. Yet it's the worst place in the state for minorities to work according to complaints to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

In 1994, the Department issued a report confirming racial problems among staff in each of its prisons. The report recommended cultural diversity training programs for all supervisors. But, three years later, the Department has no records to show how many of its 2,800 sergeants and lieutenants completed the four-hour courses according to spokeswoman Christine May. The Department admits incidents of racism, but denies widespread racial problems exist.

"My assessment is yes, we have racial discrimination, but it's very small," said Carmen Ochoa, the Department's assistant director in charge of equal employment opportunity "In relation to the entire department, it's a drop in the bucket. From 95 to 98 percent of the employees are not filing complaints of any kind. That tells me something."

But, over the past three years, Department employees have complained 462 times to their managers about racial discrimination. Many of those complaints were resolved internally, but the rate of filing with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is still three times greater than any other state agency.

Most of the employees complained about being passed over for promotion, transferred to lousy shifts, or disciplined for petty infractions. Others accuse their co-workers of offensive comments, like the black guard at Corcoran prison who complained that a white guard told him, "They shouldn't have assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.-- they should have hung him."

While prison supervisory staff view racism among staff as a problem to resolve, it's exploited among prisoners to keep them in line. There are racial quotas for all prisoner assignments. There are white, black, Latino, and "other" barbers. With few exceptions, cellmates must be the same racial or ethnic group. This strict segregation is applied to staff, too. A guard working at California Medical Facility in Vacaville said, "Everything -- our race, our genders -- are put into rosters. And we have to have quotas in job assignments. Each region, each institution is supposed to have a certain amount. It all does sort of carry over."

In reaction to what they perceive to be reverse racism, a group of white guards organized the European American Officers Association in July of 1995. John Blackwell, President of EAOA, said there are more than 100 members in the Department of Corrections and California Youth Authority. Blackwell said the group was formed to counter the race-based organizations created in recent years to promote the interests of black and Latino prison staff.

"We believe in equal opportunity for everyone and special privileges for no one," Blackwell, a CYA guard, said. "There have been a lot of special interest groups in Corrections, and these guys have had direct lines of communications with the director. But nobody goes in and talks to the director for me. That's why I started the group, to offer representation for the only group not being represented, and that was European Americans."

At Tehachapi prison, a white guard complained that a black guard accused him of associating with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. Another white guard proudly showed prisoners his local Klu Klux Klan membership card; at Chowchilla women's prison, a white female guard complained that a black lieutenant called her a "fucking white bitch." At Susanville prison, a Jewish guard complained that white skinhead guards handcuffed him to a fence, goosestepped in front of him, and told him to get a skinhead haircut or else.

At Chino, SPONGE, formed in the early 1980s, may be reemerging. SPONGE graffiti showed up at the prison as late as 1992. A recently retired Chino guard said she heard some staff discussing SPONGE activities last year. None of the group's members were identified or disciplined. And racial friction may get worse among staff.

At Tehachapi, a recently promoted black sergeant's new truck was "keyed" in the parking lot. He finally left his position in receiving and release to allow some "good old boys" to take over his assignment. Wasco and Tehachapi prisons are predominantly staff by whites, while Lancaster is largely black. "This is a black prison," said a guard who declined to be identified at Lancaster. "The administration is black, the supervisors are black, and most of the rest of the staff is black."

The racial tension within the ranks of California's prison employees has led to "very strained" relations in the Department according to New Folsom's Sgt. Ashe. Ashe said things are worse now than when he joined the Department in 1978. "It's made me very leery of our whole purpose," he said, "of what we're supposed to be standing for as peace officers."

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