ACLU seeks to continue bias suit by Wicomico guard who died in October

January 10, 1991|By Susan Hansen | Susan Hansen,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A former Wicomico County prison guard who claimed he was fired for speaking out against bigotry and racial abuse in the county Detention Center will never have a chance to take the witness stand. Yet he still may have his day in court.

James Baker, the former Wicomico County Detention Center guard, died of cancer in October at age 50, just days after filing a civil rights discrimination suit against Wicomico County and the state of Maryland. Mr. Baker's attorneys last week filed a motion to continue the suit on behalf of his wife and children.

The suit, now pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, charges that black inmates were repeatedly discriminated against and physically abused by white corrections officers at the 300-plus inmate prison in Salisbury.

On one occasion, the suit alleges, a 17-year-old girl who was seven months' pregnant was beaten severely by prison guards. In another instance, the suit alleges, a white guard deliberately burned a black inmate with a cigarette lighter. The suit contends that Mr. Baker, who is black, complained about these incidents to fellow guards.

Mr. Baker, hired by the detention center as part of a state program for welfare recipients, contended he also saw white guards parading outside prisoners' cells in Ku Klux Klan-style hoods and again complained of racial harassment to other guards.

Shortly afterward, the suit charges, prison officials told him he was being dismissed because he did not "fit into" the detention center's program.

Wicomico County and state officials deny any wrongdoing, and attorneys for the state have filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the suit.

Mr. Baker's death from pancreatic cancer has complicated efforts to prove his claims. But Anne Spielberg, a Washington attorney working on the case with the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, said she is optimistic.

"There's been a systemic problem [of discrimination] at the prison," she said. "It's not just a single incident. That's the way they operate."

Such abuse included the use of racial slurs such as "black apes" and "gorillas," according to the suit.

Deborah Jeon, an attorney at the ACLU's Eastern Shore office in Cambridge, said she continues to receive frequent collect calls from Wicomico County inmates complaining of ill treatment by ++ prison guards. "We've gotten numerous reports," she said. "A number of inmates allege that they've been physically abused and in some cases denied medical treatment."

In a separate suit filed in federal court in Baltimore last month, the ACLU charged Wicomico County prison officials had violated the constitutional rights of seven inmates by denying them access to legal counsel. That case was prompted by the prison's decision to bar an ACLU paralegal from interviewing the prisoners about complaints of brutality.

The suit on behalf of Mr. Baker also details what it describes as a consistent pattern of job discrimination against black prison guards, and cites other cases in which similar charges against prison officials have been put forth.

Last February, the Maryland Commission on Human Relations found probable cause to believe that another black prison guard, Carl Whaley, was denied a promotion on the basis of his race.

"African-American corrections officers are also routinely assigned on the tiers where the prisoners are housed, the most dangerous and difficult work assignment, while Caucasian officers of similar rank are given less dangerous and difficult work assignments," said the suit.

Ms. Spielberg said she is seeking monetary damages from the state and the county, but has not yet specified an amount.

Attorneys for both the state and county, meanwhile, said they are still hoping the case will be dismissed.

"There is no merit at all to their case," said attorney Daniel Karp, who is representing Wicomico County. He accused the ACLU of "looking for an excuse to use their new Eastern Shore office."

Andrew Baida, who is representing the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, which placed Mr. Baker in his job at the Wicomico County facility, argued that the state is not responsible -- regardless of whether Mr. Baker's claims are true.

"The purpose of the program was to help him obtain economic independence," he said. "Even if all the facts he's alleging are true, it does not impose any legal obligation on the state."

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