WARREN, Maine — Eight officers at the Maine State Prison were reprimanded earlier this year for making derogatory ethnic slurs against another employee, according to disciplinary records released by the Maine Department of Corrections.
A ninth officer — a supervisor — also was suspended for not taking action regarding the slurs made by the other officers.
The disciplinary actions were taken between Dec. 31, 2012, and Jan. 29, 2013, after the employee made a complaint to prison administration.
The disciplinary records were provided to the BDN through a Freedom of Access Act request. Final written disciplinary actions taken by local, county and state government in personnel matters are public records, according to state FOAA law.
Scott Fish, director of special projects for the Department of Corrections, said derogatory comments were directed at a staff member over a lengthy period of time and the person finally filed a complaint after another such comment was made.
“It was the final straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Fish, who declined to identify the ethnicity of the employee who made the complaint.
Seven corrections officers were issued oral reprimands for the slurs. One sergeant was suspended for one day for the same behavior, according to the state records, and required to attend additional training in workplace harassment.
A second sergeant also was given a one-day suspension for failing to report and take corrective action with employees who “engaged in ridicule, slurs and/or derogatory comments toward an employee with regard to his national origin.”
James Mackie, the union representative for state corrections workers, said that the officers deny that they made ethnic slurs.
“They are very upset and very shocked over these allegations,” said Mackie, who represents corrections officers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
He said many of the officers have filed grievances over the disciplinary action and accused the state of improperly releasing the records since the cases were not final.
Staff members receive training about the consequences of derogatory comments from the outset of employment, Fish said.
“The Maine Department of Corrections acted at once to develop a corrective action plan when the incidents in question first came to light. Such incidents are not widespread,” Fish said.
Training in workplace harassment is provided by the Maine attorney general’s office, Fish said. The training session is generally 90 minutes and includes a review of Maine’s workplace harassment policy as well as a review of state and federal workplace discrimination and harassment laws.
Fish said that the harassment policy also extends to comments to prisoners by staff.
Of the 839 prisoners at the Maine State Prison, 710 are white. Sixty-six others are black, 25 are Native American, five are Asian, eight are listed as being of two or more races, and 25 listed no race.
Mackie said the corrections officers are dedicated workers and are not creating a hostile work environment for other employees.
Mackie also said the release of the records was another example of poor management by the Department of Corrections, which he said has led to a poor work environment highlighted by major staff shortages and turnover.
These problems, Mackie claimed, also caused prison administration to overturn disciplinary actions taken last month against two guards, because the state could not afford any greater shortage of correction officers.
Fish was unable to comment on this charge Friday because prison administrators were unavailable. Earlier this month, Commissioner Joseph Ponte said staffing at the prison is adequate but acknowledged that the department has yet to reduce the turnover problem.
Other disciplinary actions by the prison administration during the past 12 months included the firing of a corrections officer on Dec. 18 for sleeping on duty. There also were reprimands issued for poor job performances, sick time violations and bringing contraband — an iPod — into the prison.
A corrections officer/cook also was issued an oral reprimand in December for giving extra chicken to one inmate. The extra chicken was given even though another officer had warned the woman to not do it.
“It is critical that food portions be routine in order to avoid any conflict between inmates in the chow hall — a dangerous location for inmate conflict,” the record states.