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Racism called widespread at state prison

A state investigation finds no basis for bias complaints, but says more minorities should be hired and promoted.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


To Doris Jones, the status of African-American employees at Lancaster Correctional Institution became clear last year after someone left feces in her office trash can and she and another black staffer discovered their cars scratched by keys in the prison parking lot.

Other staffers at the youthful offender facility in rural Gilchrist County say black officers get back-up assistance more slowly than white officers, rarely get promoted, and consistently receive the worst shifts and assignments. The employees, including some whites, said African-Americans generally get shunted aside by a "good ol' country boy" clique that dominates the prison where 90 percent of the officers are white, but more than half the inmates are minorities.

The rare internal criticism of the prison surfaces in newly released records of an Department of Corrections investigation prompted by a December St. Petersburg Times article about white officers wearing knotted cord key chains. The cords are known variously as "n----- knots," "KKK knots" and "n----- knockers" among inmates and some officers who say they signify officers willing to back each other up when using excessive force on prisoners.

Investigators concluded those allegations were baseless after nearly 350 employees at the prison said they had no direct knowledge of anyone in a white supremacist group or of anyone mistreating inmates at Lancaster Correctional Institution. The 24 staffers found with the knotted cords said they were were nothing more than key chains, although half of them have previously been investigated, and uniformly cleared, on allegations of abusing inmates.

In surveying staffers at the north-central Florida prison about the knotted cords, investigators found enough complaints about the racial climate that they opened a discrimination investigation. The department eventually concluded "no cause" for the discrimination complaints, but acknowledged that few minorities are hired and even fewer promoted at Lancaster and that personnel practices need improvement.

"The first step to making race relations better would be to have all officers remove the (knotted cord) key chains from the institution," Sgt. Larry Andrews, who is black, suggested to investigators.

The report was released by the DOC at a time when the agency faces lawsuits from the NAACP and more than 100 correctional officers alleging rampant discrimination and racism at prisons across the state.

"We don't have any kind of tolerance for racial misconduct or discrimination," said C.J. Drake, spokesman for the department, stressing the department sees no evidence of widespread racial problems.

At Lancaster, he said: "It's mainly a question of perception, and it appears to be anecdotal. But we're ... going to deal with it. It's a recruitment issue, an education issue and a sensitivity issue, and we're going to work on all of it."

Most officers interviewed said the best step to improve race relations and effectiveness would be to hire and promote more minorities. Officers noted that one particular shift, 4 p.m. to midnight, appeared to have the most officers with knotted cord key chains and also seemed to generate the most "use of force" incidents against inmates.

"There are only a couple black officers on that shift," said Daniel Dudley.

Several officers told investigators that white officers had been overheard planning to "set up" Capt. Willie Hogan, a veteran with a spotless record who is the highest ranking African-American at Lancaster.

Hogan, who told the Times in December that officers with the "n----- knots" protect each other, declined to comment for this article. But he told investigators of a "good ol' boy clique" that routinely falsifies reports. "Capt. Hogan," the report noted, "stated these officers did not want to work with him because he did not support the beating of inmates, abusive language, nor did he allow the sergeants to do whatever they want."

Not all the complaints came from black officers.

Officer Dennis Douglas, who is white, recounted how a group of white officers once shouted "n----- lover" after seeing him talking to a black officer. Douglas said that racist beliefs are common among Lancaster staffers and that if the prison had more African-American officers, guards on certain shifts "would not be able to get away with the things they did to inmates."

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