If police across America haven’t seemed to quite get the message being delivered by the massive protests against racism and police brutality in the past month, then it’s not surprising that the people who run Minnesota’s correctional facilities have done equally poorly at erasing systemic bias against people of color within their own operations.
That conclusion is a natural takeaway from the news that eight correctional officers with minority backgrounds have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Ramsey County Jail alleging that they were being banned from guarding former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the man who rocketed to infamy as video footage shared around the world showed him drain the life from George Floyd’s body as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.
The complaint claims that when Chauvin was brought to the jail after finally being charged with murder at the end of last month, the superintendent of the lockup segregated the workforce so that the former cop would only be watched over by white correctional officers.
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According to the attorney representing the banned correctional officers of color, Bonnie Smith, her clients were informed that they could no longer work on the prison’s fifth floor where Chauvin was incarcerated. Smith told NBC News that the order was given only to non-white guards who were subsequently replaced with officers of the Caucasian persuasion.
The attorney further claims that her clients were “humiliated and debased” by the superintendent’s actions because it exhibited a lack of trust in their professionalism.
“My clients came to work that day fully prepared to do their work. They are highly trained, experienced professionals in dangerous and volatile situations, and were just as well equipped as their white counterparts to perform their work duties on May 29,” she said. “The fact that they weren’t allowed to do so has devastated them.”
Smith is pressing for monetary compensation for the guards to overcome that humiliation but is also attempting to mandate training on racial bias for all jail employees, as well as the proffering of a formal and public apology, and for the supervisors responsible for the decision to be disciplined.
“Their primary goal is to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Smith said.
The Ramsey County Sheriff’s office has told a different version of the events ta hand, claiming that only three correctional officers were reassigned and that the personnel shift only lasted for around 45 minutes. They attributed the move to racial sensitivity rather than racial bias.
“Recognizing that the murder of George Floyd was likely to create particularly acute racialized trauma, I felt I had an immediate duty to protect and support employees who may have been traumatized and may have heightened ongoing trauma by having to deal with Chauvin,” Ramsey County Jail superintendent Steve Lydon said in a statement. “Out of care and concern, and without the comfort of time, I made the decision to limit exposure to employees of color to a murder suspect who could potentially aggravate those feelings.”
The attorney for the plaintiffs wasn’t buying Lydon’s explanation, smelling an “after the fact justification” at work. Smith claims that not only did her clients not ask for protection but that the topics of “care and concern” were never brought up when the move was discussed with them.
If he [Lydon] is really trying to protect my clients from racial trauma, he shouldn’t be segregating them on the basis of skin color,” Smith said. “He isn’t preventing racial trauma — he is creating it.”
An interim supervisor has been named by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office to take Lydon’s place while the incident is being investigated.
While prisoners with a high risk of retaliation by other prisoners are often segregated from the general population for their own protection, being separated from prison guards because of the color of their skin seems to be a bridge too far. If the superintendent doesn’t trust his own employees to do their job professionally, one must wonder why they were hired in the first place.
This hardly seems to be a case of blind justice.
Original reporting by Ben Kesslen at NBC News.
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