Dangling from the pockets of many white Florida prison guards is a cord knotted to resemble a hangman's noose. When asked about the cords during an internal probe prompted by articles exposing the activities of a secret group of racist guards in the Florida prison system, white guards claimed they were nothing more than key chains. Others had a different name for them. "I've heard them called `Nigger Knots'. Only certain people get them, and if you're in that group, they'll protect you, whatever you get into," said Captain Willie Hogan, a black guard assigned to Lancaster, who's been in the system 21 years. Hogan refused further comment, saying the department doesn't like guards talking with the media.
Many guards proudly wear the hangman's knots on their key ring cords in Florida prisons. Yet the meaning behind the knot was a secret until the St. Petersburg Times broke the story in a series of articles beginning in late 1999. After the story was published, three guards and three prisoners came forward and told a twisted tale of an invisible empire of racist guards.
Only after the newspaper exposed the racist clique did Michael Moore, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, order an investigation. Twelve investigators were sent to Lancaster prison. They interviewed staff and looked for knots on key chains. C.J. Drake, spokesperson for the department, said 200 of the prison's 359 staff members were interviewed in one day, and that 30 employees on leave were ordered back for questioning.
"We take all allegations seriously and encourage employees to report allegations of this kind of conduct to the [department's] Inspector General's office," Drake told the Times . "We're going to get to the bottom of whatever allegations have been made. If the allegations are substantiated, then we'll take appropriate action." Drake said the FBI had already failed to corroborate previous complaints with "racial overtones" in June of 1999 when they interviewed Captain Hogan. Drake wasn't sure if that inquiry involved the knotted cords.
James Wiggins, once a captain at Cross City Correctional Institution, said he wore a knotted cord on his prison key chain until he retired in 1995. Wiggins hinted that it would be very hard to uncover the meaning behind the knots. "Certain [guards] have them, but they're not issued by the department. You ask people, and they'll tell you, `Oh, this is just a key chain. It's nothing,'" laughed Wiggins, who worked in prisons 15 years. Guards know when they see another guard wearing a knotted cord he will cover their back in case they want to "straighten out" a prisoner, Wiggins said. The former captain happily showed reporters how the cords were used to torture prisoners.
Wiggins explained how to wrap the cord around one or two fingers of a prisoner, then bend his hand back against his chest until the tendons began to tear and the pain became unbearable. Wiggins said one of his favorite tricks was to stand behind a prisoner, reach over his head holding the knotted cord tight between his clenched fists, then jerk the cord up hard against the base of the prisoner's nose. "They usually have keys on them so they can also make a good slap-jack, if you have to have one," Wiggins laughed. "Ingenuity, my friend, ingenuity."
Many prisoners told the Times the cords signaled membership in a secret racist organization of prison guards. That claim was corroborated by two former guards who refused to be identified publicly for fear of retaliation.
"They call them `two niggers in a knot,'" explained Chester Hart, a 20 year-old former gang member who has spent time in several of Florida's prisons. "You see those things all throughout the prison system. I saw them at Sumter, South Florida, [Lake] Butler and Indian River. In all the institutions I went to I saw [guards] carry those knots, and it was always the racist ones, the ones who were always picking on the black guys, never the white guys," Hart said.
In 1998, Hart was ordered to the guard's office at Lancaster. There, several sergeants and a captain screamed at him and threatened him for filing complaints about prison conditions. A captain waved a knotted cord in Hart's face during the incident. "I said, `What are those things, anyway?' [The captain said] "It's two niggers in a knot. You're in a gang, and we're in a gang, too _ the KKK,'" Hart recalled. Although Hart is white, he said he was often warned about befriending black prisoners.
And at Florida State Prison, Nebuchadnezzar Wrisper told reporters about the time he overheard guards talking about the knots. The guards said the cords were worn by members of a white supremacist clique, and that the number of knots on the cords had meaning, too. "The number of knots symbolize a step or degree, but the knotted cord key chain is only an option at the member's discretion, not a requirement," said Wrisper, a 21 year-old black man serving 22 years for murder.
At Apalachee Correctional Institution, prisoner David Locke said he remembered seeing the knotted cords at Lancaster. Locke, who is white, told the newspaper in a letter that he knew the cords were related to racist Klan groups because he had experience with similar organizations when he lived in Alabama. "I asked [a guard] there [at Lancaster] one day what they stood for, but he said it was a Boy Scout knot and laughed," Locke wrote. "They wear different colors, for like different places in the Klan."
Reports of Klan groups within the Florida prison system aren't new. Evidence of guards leaving Klan graffiti for prisoners to see, displaying Klan tattoos, and attending Klan rallies has surfaced over the years, but the department claims such cases are isolated. "We have zero tolerance for any kind of racist or bigoted behavior," said Drake.
Barbara Hodge, a sergeant at Lancaster, often worked the security checkpoint for incoming staff. She saw many knotted cords worn by fellow guards, but claimed she didn't know their meaning. "They called themselves the `posse' something _ I can't remember what. It was sort of a clique. They all wanted to keep it a big secret. They wouldn't tell you what it was about," said Hodge.
A Lancaster guard who wears a knotted key chain cord said they don't signify racism. "The [prisoners] all think that, and we just laugh at them and don't tell them anything different," claimed James Sapp. Eric Wooten, another Lancaster guard, at first told the Times he'd never heard of the knotted cords. Later he admitted he had one, colored garnet and black for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. "There may be some who know of some kind of secret organization to it, everybody that had one wouldn't tell you," Wooten speculated. "You're probably best just to forget about it."
A major at Florida State Prison was demoted to sergeant after yelling "another nigger on the compound" when the new black assistant superintendent came in. Yet according to Moore, "We have isolated incidents, but those are individuals, not the whole." Understandably, black guards see things differently. Over 100 present and former black guards joined two lawsuits alleging racism is entrenched throughout the department.
In the Florida prison system, it seems the Old South has risen again. White prison guards who belong to the Klan don't disturb the sensibilities of local communities in the Sunshine State. And, if nosy left-wing newspaper reporters and Northern do-gooders know what's good for them, they best let sleeping dogs lie. Or so the haters would like us to believe. But hate groups can't survive under the light of public scrutiny. No matter how long it takes to rid the prison system of this problem, we'll all be a bit better off when these knots are untied.
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