Ex-guard sues Wyoming state prison alleging racist work environment

Friday , March 21, 2014 - 9:19 AM

Casper Star-Tribune, Patrick Simonaitis

RAWLINS, Wyo. -- An African-American man who was a guard at the Wyoming State Penitentiary is claiming that supervisors at the jail did not do enough to change a racist and discriminatory work environment among staff members at the prison during the roughly three years he worked there.

Adrian White, through the Casper-based Ochs Law Firm, filed a federal lawsuit against the prison in Rawlins and the Wyoming Department of Corrections in February. The lawsuit alleges that White was subjected to racism and experienced retaliation for filing reports about those incidents.

This week, Chief Judge Nancy Freudenthal scheduled a pretrial conference in Cheyenne in May.

White was hired at the prison in July 2010 and resigned his position in August 2013. Throughout his time as a guard, he received a number of promotions and pay raises.

The former guard alleges several instances of racism by fellow guards, none of which received serious consideration from prison supervisors, he says.

From the complaint:

On Jan. 27, 2011, a white guard said he was going to a Ku Klux Klan meeting during an upcoming weekend and “made a crass remark about lynching black people and then looked over at (White).” After reporting that incident, in “an act of retaliation,” White was transferred to a unit that housed high-security white supremacist inmates, where no black officers had ever worked because of security concerns and no black inmates are housed. In that unit, he was “constantly subjected to violence, offensive racial epithets, and death threats.” The Wyoming Association of Correctional Employees union eventually filed a letter on his behalf requesting his transfer from that unit. Someone passed over for a promotion vocally accused White of receiving the promotion only because of his race and criticized him on that ground to trainees. On Dec. 12, 2012, White found a printout of an email he had sent a month before. On that sheet, his name had been crossed out and replaced with “Douche Nigger.”

The lawsuit also claims that none of White’s formal complaints spurred any serious investigations or punishment for other officers beyond a “slap on the wrist.”

The prison replied to the complaint last week, denying nearly all claims in a paragraph-by-paragraph response.

The response, filed by Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General Theodore Racines, acknowledges that White is college-educated, that he had received promotions and that the union had requested his transfer to a different unit.

To almost every other claim, including White’s claim that he had met with the warden, Eddie Wilson, to have a recorded discussion about his treatment by fellow employees, the response either denies White’s account or is noncommittal.

“Defendants are without sufficient information upon which to form a belief as to the truth of matters contained in (that claim),” the document states in reply to that alleged meeting with the warden.

The response also claims that the lawsuit, which alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fails on several legal grounds.

“All of the Defendants’ acts were within the course and scope of their duties and all actions, inactions, or omissions were privileged and authorized by law,” it states.

“(The prison) exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior, and (White) unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by employer or to avoid harm otherwise.”

White’s lawsuit asks for unspecified monetary damages.

Jason Ochs, who filed the lawsuit, was in trial and could not be reached for comment Thursday. The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond for a request for comment.

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