Indian man wins discrimination suit

Federal jury awards ex-correctional officer $1.16 million from state

August 02, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

While inside the walls of the Patuxent Institution in Howard County, retired correctional officer Mathen Chacko says he spent two decades confined in a different sort of prison.

Fellow employees mocked his thick accent, telling him to "go back to India" and calling him a "camel jockey," he says. Even supervisors laughed, Chacko says, and prison administrators did nothing.

"When I complained, I was told, `We cannot stop anyone's mouth,' " 63-year-old Chacko, who was born and raised in southern India, recalled yesterday.

Last week, in what could be the largest such award against the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, federal jurors said Chacko should receive $1.16 million in his discrimination lawsuit.

State lawyers who represent the department plan to file post-trial motions next week and are likely to seek a new trial and a reduction in the damages awarded.

Department spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli said in a written statement that the agency believes Chacko "absolutely did not prove a hostile work environment within the meaning of the controlling federal anti-discrimination law."

But Chacko's lawyer called the jury award -- essentially symbolic because federal law limits Maryland's liability to $300,000 -- vindication for a man whose emotional and physical health suffered because of unfair treatment at the treatment-based prison in Jessup.

"He needs to be compensated for what he went through," said attorney Bryan A. Chapman. "Apparently, a jury agrees."

At his two-story brick home in Baltimore County's Rosedale community yesterday, Chacko spread on his dining room table 20 years' worth of internal complaints, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings and letters to politicians.

Most of the correspondence went unanswered, he says.

With each incident -- from a prison medical contractor telling him he should learn to speak English, to a fellow correctional officer handcuffing him as a joke -- Chacko says, he became more nervous and paranoid.

"Every time I walked in that institution, I was getting panic attacks," he said. "I thought, `What is going to happen today?'"

Daily, he says, people would mimic his accent (particularly upon hearing his voice over the loudspeaker) and would make references to "camels" and "foreigners."

Ridiculed by co-workers

Chacko, who immigrated to the United States in 1975, says co-workers seemed to take pleasure in ridiculing him in front of the inmates, who relished seeing an authority figure being treated badly. He stands at just over 5 feet tall and has a slight build, but Chacko says the prisoners rarely hassled him.

His co-workers were another story, he says.

The prisoners doubled over laughing, Chacko says, when a supervisor frisked him and when co-workers briefly locked him in the cafeteria.

Chacko says he recounted these and other incidents for the jury last week. Three other correctional officers and Chacko's former supervisor testified on his behalf.

Former Patuxent Institution Director Richard B. Rosenblatt, now an assistant secretary in the Public Safety and Correctional Services Department, testified that neither he nor Chacko's supervisors ever learned about such harassment. Furthermore, Rosenblatt said, there are no written complaints from Chacko alleging name-calling or other discrimination based on his national origin.

"We take any allegation like that very seriously," said spokesman Vernarelli. "And we investigate immediately and thoroughly."

Chacko says he stopped complaining to supervisors early in his career because "they were laughing right along with it all." But he believes his nationality played into nearly everything that happened to him at work.

Despite high test scores, Chacko says, it took him longer to be promoted. As the only Indian-American correctional officer at Patuxent, Chacko says it was his goal to become the first person of his nationality to achieve the rank of captain.

And no matter how he felt, Chacko couldn't afford to quit, with a son and daughter in private schools and later college.

At home, he shared some of his stories with his wife, Aleykutty Chacko, who says she had a long, happy career with the the former Veterans Administration.

`Fire my husband'

After one bad day, Aleykutty Chacko says she sneaked a call to her husband's supervisor. "I said, `Can you do me a favor? Please fire my husband before I lose him,' " she recalled yesterday. "I didn't want him to die on the job."

Chacko says he once was taken directly from Patuxent to Howard County General Hospital and once went to a hospital immediately after work, both times fearing that he was about to have a heart attack.

He retired in December, two years after filing a federal lawsuit that alleged discrimination and a hostile work environment.

Chacko says he never wanted to take his employer to court, but he eventually felt that "they left me no choice."

He and his wife are ambivalent about the verdict and realize it will be years -- if ever -- before they see any money.

"At least I got an opportunity to bring my point across, and somebody heard," Chacko says. "Nobody was hearing for years."

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