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Guards Saluting Fascism on the Job—Literally

by Ed Lyon

Prison guards in Arizona, Utah and West Virginia have recently been reported indulging white supremacist and anti-prisoner views on the job.

Most recently, members of the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) Special Tactics and Operations team proudly sported patches bearing a skull and crossbones, eerily reminiscent of the insignia of Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel, or “protection squadron”).

When contacted about the patch and its uncanny resemblance to Nazi symbolism, a DOC spokesperson defended it, noting it was the handiwork of former DOC Director Charles Ryan. Then state Rep. Mitzi Epstein (D-Dist.18) and former Rep. Diego Rodriguez (D-Dist.27) got involved, and the agency quickly reversed its position. On December 8, 2021, DOC Assistant Director of Operations Lance Hetmer ordered the patch removed from all uniforms.

Ryan, since leaving DOC, has been charged with two felony counts stemming from a boozy armed standoff with Tempe Police at his home on January 6, 2022, the same day a mob overran the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election lost by their preferred candidate, former Pres. Donald J. Trump (R). [See: PLN, July 2022, p.43.]

Given the thuggishness of some prison guards, what happened in Arizona was perhaps unsurprising. But the professional organization representing prison and jail guards, the American Correctional Association, claims to hold its members to a higher standard embodied in its Code of Ethics, the first core principle of which is respect and protection for the civil and legal rights of all individuals.

In another disturbing show, 30 guard trainees and several instructors were fired by the West Virginia DOC after leak of a photograph that captured them raising their hands in what appeared to be a Nazi salute in December 2019. Gov. Jim Justice (R) said “[the] incident was completely unacceptable…we must continue to move forward and work diligently to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

While not overtly white supremacist, the image chosen in October 2020 for a “challenge coin” by guards at the Utah State Prison in Draper displayed callousness toward the prisoners they are employed to protect. The small medallions, which are popular among law enforcement for signifying their camaraderie, depicted a grinning skull peeking out from behind bars, with the inscription “Utah Prison Conditions – Hell on Earth.”

At the time, an outbreak of COVID-19 had infected 210 prisoners, leaving the entire prison on lockdown. Several family members of prisoners who had died after contracting coronavirus at the prison felt the guards were mocking their deaths. State DOC Director Brian Nielson noted the coins were not sanctioned by the agency and were paid for by the guards. 


Sources: American Correctional Association, Arizona Republic, KSTU, KUTV, New York Times


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