CBSN
crimesider

Are prison guards allowed to be in the KKK?

Last Updated Apr 3, 2015 3:09 PM EDT

Three men who had been employed by the Florida Department of Corrections as prison guards were arrested this week on charges they conspired to kill a former inmate. All three, according to the indictments, were also members of the Traditionalist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Within hours, Florida's DOC announced that they had dismissed Thomas Jordan Driver, 25, and David Elliot Moran, 47, from their jobs at the Department of Corrections Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler. The third suspect, Charles Thomas Newcomb, 42, was no longer working at the facility when the alleged crimes took place.

The DOC declined to comment on whether they were aware the men had been members of the KKK, and as of press time was unable to answer whether the department has a policy regarding membership in groups like the one the men belonged to, which, according to its pre-recorded voicemail message, is "unapologetically committed to the interest and values of the white race."

But the sentiment on the voicemail message certainly seems in conflict with the department's ethical code for officers, which states: "Correctional Officers shall not express, whether by act, omission or statement, prejudice concerning race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, disability, sexual orientation or age."

kkk.gif
CBS This Morning

According to the indictment, Driver told Moran, Newcomb and a confidential source used by the FBI, that the alleged target of the murder plot, a former inmate who is black, had attacked him at work. Subsequently, Newcomb (who the indictment describes as the "Exalted Cyclops" of their chapter of the KKK), Moran and the source discussed how they would kill the victim. Newcomb allegedly showed the men syringes filled with insulin and a 9mm handgun with ammunition that he said he had wiped clean of fingerprints.

"Newcomb pointed out that if they could grab [name redacted] and take him to the river he would need to bring a fishing pole to make it look like [name redacted] was at the river fishing," reads the indictment.

The source recorded the conversation, including this exchange after Moran asked Newcomb whether the alleged target fished.

NEWCOMB: He's a n****r.

MORAN: Huh?

NEWCOMB: He's a n****r.

MORAN: Yeah.

NEWCOMB: All n****rs fish.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that tracks hate groups, told 48 Hours' Crimesider that the case was "very unusual," but that he wasn't terribly surprised to hear about racist prison guards.

"Prisons are simply the most racialized environment in America," said Potok, referencing the race-based gangs that proliferate behind bars.

Kelsey Kauffman, author of the book "Prison Officers and Their World," echoes Potok's assessment, calling racist prison guards a "widespread phenomenon."

"Working in a prison in rural America -which is where most prisons are located - provides all the ingredients for becoming a member of a racist group," says Kauffman, who has spent decades researching race relations behind bars.

"Often, the people working there, the only black people they know are prisoners. And prisoners reinforce every racial stereotype or white supremacist tendency they already have because they are often hostile to guards."

In a 2000 report titled "The Brotherhood: Racism and Intimidation Among Prison Staff at the Indiana Correctional Facility-Putnamville," Kauffman documented multiple instances of egregious behavior by guards, including an officer who wore a white KKK hood on prison grounds.

Historically, says Kauffman, Florida's history of racism by prison guards is among the worst. The state's prisons have also come under scrutiny lately for the record 346 inmates who died behind bars in the state in 2014.

But whether or not a law enforcement officer is legally allowed to belong to a hate group like the KKK or the American Nazi Party or the Aryan Brotherhood is not settled law. In 2009, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the firing of a state trooper who belonged to the KKK.

"One cannot simultaneously wear the badge of the Nebraska State Patrol and the robe of a Klansman without degrading what that badge represents when worn by any officer," wrote Judge John Gerrard.

"A lot of case law argues that this is an ideology that directly affects the work they're paid for," explains Potok. "How can you expect an officer who is a member of the KKK to treat his black constituents fairly?"

But Martin Horn, who has overseen Pennsylvania and New York City's corrections departments and is now the Executive Director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, says that a correctional "agency can no more prohibit employees from being members of the KKK than they can from being members of the Democratic Party."

"There is such a thing as the First Amendment and there is such a thing as the freedom to assemble," Horn told Crimesider. What an agency can do, however, is set guidelines that prohibit the display of racist tattoos, for example, or participating in activities - like marching in a parade carrying a Nazi flag while wearing your official uniform, for example - that would discredit the agency.

"A mere system of belief is not enough" disqualify a corrections officer from serving, says Horn "as long as they can sublimate their beliefs and perform their duties professionally."

On this point, Kauffman agrees: "You can't stop someone from joining an association they want to join, But you have to pay very close attention to what they're doing at work."

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com