Probe asked of ECI bias charges Prison accused of favoring whites

February 22, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- The Justice Department is being asked to investigate charges of racial discrimination at Eastern Correction Institution, among them that the warden promoted a dozen white officers even though he knew they may have seen the answers to the promotional exam.

The Correctional Coalition, a group of about 100 officers and nonuniformed workers at the Somerset County prison, also alleges that white officers are given preferential treatment and that blacks are often subjected to racial epithets.

The group is calling for the resignation of Warden Kenneth E. Taylor and has taken its case to Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a 1st District Republican. Mr. Gilchrest said he asked justice officials to investigate the allegations, but they have not yet responded.

"Even if [the charges] are only half true, it looks like it's pretty bad in there," said Mr. Gilchrest, whose district includes the prison.

Warden Taylor declined to comment about the promotions or the call for his resignation.

The coalition's main complaint against the warden concerns the promotion of officers who may have seen answers to the exam.

"This is a slap in the face to those of us who wanted a fair chance at a promotion," said one correctional officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Answers to the test allegedly were given to a group of white officers who had been invited to a January 1992 party by Lt. Terry Cornelius, an ECI officer who helped design the exam.

Lieutenant Cornelius had signed a pledge not to discuss the test and is the subject of a disciplinary probe, Richard A. Lanham Sr., head of the state's Division of Correction, acknowledged.

As many as 60 white officers attended Lieutenant Cornelius' test party, one correctional officer said.

"If each one helped someone else with the test answers, that's 120 people all of a sudden," he said.

"Under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to profit from a test that was compromised," said Larry Thomas, president of Teamster Local No. 103, which has officers as members.

Based on the test scores and interviews, three white correctional officers were promoted to sergeant in March 1992. But one officer was demoted to his former rank when he admitted he had attended Lieutenant Cornelius' party, Mr. Lanham said.

Warden Taylor approved 12 more promotions in early December, although a number of black correctional officers had charged that the sergeant's test was tainted by the leaks and had asked that the results be scrapped in favor of a new exam.

All of the newly appointed sergeants, whose bi-weekly salaries of $1,123 could reach $1,209 with the promotion, are white.

Mr. Lanham said he thought problems with the test had been resolved in early 1992 when the officer was demoted and disciplinary charges were brought against Lieutenant Cornelius.

"We felt it was an isolated incident," he said. "I find it very interesting that the sergeants' test was a year ago and now these people are making these allegations."

But one officer said more than 20 employees at the Somerset County prison complained about the test early last year.

"We thought our grievances were being considered," said the officer, "so everyone quieted down until the other promotions came in December."

Mr. Lanham said the state administered the same sergeant's test to correctional officers around the state and he thought it would be unfair to penalize everyone who had been promoted by scrapping the exam.

Questions about the validity of the test scores have been isolated to the Eastern Correctional Institution. Mr. Lanham said he has heard no complaints about the test from other correctional facilities.

"We'll look into these new charges," he said. "We'll see what happens. If I feel that there's specific evidence, we'll deal with it on a case-to-case basis."

Dissatisfied with reaction to their complaints from within the Division of Correction, coalition members turned to elected officials, including Mr. Gilchrest.

Mr. Gilchrest, who went to Salisbury last week to hear the officers' grievances, said he is sympathetic.

"It appears to be a horrendous problem with racism from their perspective," he said. "We're going to try to unravel it. I don't want to leave these guys in the lurch."

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