As people across the country reacted to George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in late May 2020, at least two state correctional officers, independently, posted racist comments on Facebook about Floyd’s death.

And a Black correctional officer was disciplined for growing angry at co-workers over a “thin blue line” flag hanging in a state prison gymnasium in August 2020.

These officers all were disciplined for breaking the agency’s discrimination policies, according to documents released to KQED by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation under SB16, the expanded transparency law.

The records shed light for the first time on how the agency deals with racism among its employees. The documents contain racist and antisemitic language and imagery.

In the wake of the incidents, a group of Black CDCR employees has been pushing the department to make hiring and promotional practices more fair and equitable.

“Nothing has changed, not a thing,” said Sharonya Reene Dorsey, an analyst for the CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education.

CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas wrote in an email that leadership has taken concrete steps to improve recruitment, outreach and diversity in hiring. Simas wrote that the department has zero tolerance for discrimination, “and we work hard to ensure racial equity and justice.”

On May 28, 2020, Joshua Priester, a white correctional officer at Folsom State Prison, commented after a Facebook user shared an article with the headline “Surveillance Footage Shows George Floyd Moments Before Killing, He’s Not Resisting.”

“He [Floyd] was not a very good person one less loser,” Priester wrote.

According to the documents released by CDCR, Priester argued with two people with whom he’d attended the correctional academy. One user suggested that if Floyd were white, he would not have been killed by police officers because he would have been at work. The full exchange is available here.

The department suspended Priester for 60 days for his comments, and for sharing another image of Floyd’s arrest on his Facebook page. As of Tuesday, the image remained up on Priester’s page.

Priester did not reply to emails and messages requesting comment, and his union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, did not respond to emails and calls requesting comment. CDCR did not say whether Priester appealed his suspension.

A day earlier, on May 27, 2020, Matthew Sanchez, an officer at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, commented on a post about Floyd’s arrest, according to the records.

“How the fuck do you shout when you’re be [sic] choked?” Sanchez wrote, including a laughing emoji in the post. “If you’re actually being choked you can’t talk.”

When another commenter objected, Sanchez, using emojis and a texting abbreviation, fired back, “did you bring your feelings to Facebook? I got one for you. What’s the difference between Jews and boy scouts? Boy scouts come back from their camps. Lmk when you’re ready for another one.”

The department dismissed Sanchez. CDCR would not say whether Sanchez appealed his firing. Sanchez couldn’t be reached for comment, and his former union did not respond to our inquiries.

By May 29, 2020, word of the officers’ racist posts had reached Ralph Diaz, CDCR’s former secretary, who sent out a memo to all employees calling the posts “extremely hurtful and disrespectful.”

“To say I was upset to learn of these comments would be an understatement – those who engaged in such behavior have brought dishonor to this Department and cast a shadow on the fine work we do,” Diaz wrote.

Diaz reminded CDCR employees of their duty to keep their private lives “unsullied,” and suggested they all review the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.

In response to KQED’s request for comment, CDCR spokesperson Simas wrote that Diaz’s memo and the disciplinary actions taken by the department “exemplify” the department’s commitment to racial equity and justice. Diaz retired in September 2020.

“We also require annual training on discrimination related policies, and strive to ensure there is proper accountability and expectations for our staff both at work and in the community,” Simas wrote.

Simas would not say whether the department had reviewed the treatment of Black people in custody by Sanchez and Priester.

A CDCR employee, who didn’t want to be named because she fears retaliation, said the discipline displays the agency’s bias.

“They make an antisemitic joke, and they get fired. But they make a joke about an African American person, and they either don’t get suspended or just get suspended,” she said.

Dorsey, in the CDCR’s Office of Correctional Education, and her colleague, Sebrena Lindsay, were among the employees who received the memo from Diaz, but they saw it as a missed opportunity for the administration to reach out to Black staff and see how they were doing.

“We were hurting as a community of employees,” Lindsay said.

In response, Dorsey, Lindsay and other Black co-workers sent their own letter, calling out the agency for failing to hire, promote and support Black employees. They also included a list of specific action items the agency could take to increase pay equity and representation.

“Changing the culture of systemic racism and implicit bias at CDCR will only succeed after acknowledging the challenges faced by Black employees, and taking concrete actions to address those challenges,” the letter said.

One of the key requests they made was for an independent audit of hirings and promotions so the agency could gather data on its own practices and reveal whether there was bias.

“You really can’t fix the problem if you can’t acknowledge the problem,” another CDCR employee, who requested anonymity because they fear retaliation, told KQED.

In an email, Simas said that CDCR has improved recruitment and outreach and increased diversity in hiring. The agency sent out recruitment advertisements featuring people who present as Black, Asian American and Muslim American, she noted. According to Simas, the agency also is adopting a diversity statement in job applications, and it sent all CDCR executives and managers to implicit bias training beginning in late 2020.

The documents released by CDCR show Diaz’s memo also was part of the justification for disciplining a Black correctional officer in Los Angeles for anti-white racism in August 2020.

When Carl Holmes arrived for his shift at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, he was upset by a “thin blue line” flag hanging in the gymnasium. Holmes said the flag was offensive to him as a Black man and to the Black Lives Matter movement, according to documents.

The documents say that an administrative officer “addressed” Holmes’s concerns about the flag, but do not reveal how. The records also state that the “blue line symbolizes police officers shot and killed in the line of duty,” while failing to acknowledge that the imagery has other connotations and has even been banned by some police chiefs.

Simas did not respond to questions about how the department views the flag.

A white officer asked Holmes if he was OK, and Holmes, according to the recollection of the officer, said, “All police and white people are racist pigs and that flag out there, that I have to look at every day makes me sick, and enraged and I’m not going to put up with them trying to talk me down about this,” documents say.

CDCR cut Holmes’s pay by 5% for 24 pay periods — or two years. Holmes did not respond to emails and messages requesting comment.

Since Dorsey and her colleagues sent their letter and proposed an action plan to the administration, they said the department hasn’t adopted any of the recommendations. Instead, she and Lindsay have been targeted, she claims.

Simas wrote in an email that leadership has continued to meet with Dorsey and her group and that the department welcomes hearing about employees’ experiences “so that we can address their concerns collaboratively.”

Dorsey and Lindsay say they aren’t afraid to speak out because they are near retirement and are committed to changing the culture for future employees.

“They know they can’t intimidate us,” Dorsey said. “They could try. I’m not intimidated.”

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