State officials sought to quell fears this week about racism in the ranks of state correctional officers after two Nazi flags were seen hanging inside a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation office in Sacramento.
First published by local TV news stations on Monday, the troubling footage of the flags — one red with a black swastika in the center, another black with SS bolts, hanging on the wall next to a bulletin board — spread quickly, with national media coverage by the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Daily Beast and other outlets. A video posted on the social media site Imgur was viewed over 150,000 times and counting.
In a series of short statements on Tuesday and Wednesday, the CDCR sought to pour cold water on concerns that the department had been infiltrated by Nazi sympathizers. Instead, a spokesperson said the flags had been seized from offenders and did not represent the ideology of the person who hung them. As to why they were displayed prominently, sharing space with other office décor such as an American flag, the answer was less clear.
“Our initial review of the facts shows that the employee responsible for hanging this flag is a person of color, and has no ties or affiliation with white supremacy or Nazis,” wrote CDCR’s Dana Simas in a statement emailed at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday. The flags were “seized property from a case.”
“The flag has been removed from the office it was found, and we apologize for this profoundly incendiary act,” Simas wrote.
In an earlier statement, the CDCR said the office is used by parole officers, who often “come into contact with items that may be considered objectionable” throughout the course of their work. Indeed, the California state prison system has well-known neo-Nazi and white supremacist elements — in June, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against 16 members of the Aryan Brotherhood within the state prison system, alleging that gang members operated an extensive drug trafficking ring and committed murder. Ralph Diaz, who holds the top job as CDCR secretary, said at the time that “neutralizing prison gangs is a top priority for the department.”
Other complaints have concerned not prison gangs but institutional racism among officers. In 2015, an investigation by the state’s inspector general into the High Desert State Prison in Susanville reported numerous allegations of “overt racism” by correctional officers toward inmates, including use of the N-word and the slur “wetback.” Inmates interviewed during the course of the investigation said it was common practice for officers to search the “cells of black inmates more often than those of other races.”
Attorney Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, a 40-year-old Berkeley public interest firm, said in the course of her work she has been privy to allegations of racism in state prisons. “The 2015 inspector general report was clear proof that those kinds of attitudes do exist,” she said.
However, “I’ve never seen it at the highest levels of the CDCR,” Norman said. “I believe they are committed to rooting out racism. I believe it is a problem in the ranks.”
The CDCR declined interview requests.
State Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica spoke on Tuesday with Diaz, appointed to helm the prison system in March.
“He said he was incredibly disappointed” and “very concerned,” said Allen, who chairs the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. “I took the secretary at his word. He would be getting to the bottom of it.”
According to Allen, Diaz said the parole office in question combats Nazism within the prison system. “My best understanding is that this was somebody putting up some paraphernalia associated with his work,” the senator said.
The state employee “was really not sensitive enough to how incredibly painful those images are to so many people within the Jewish community and beyond,” Allen said, mentioning African Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. “It demonstrates a lack of awareness about how hateful and problematic that symbol is.”
Diaz is “going to take action,” Allen said.
Simas, the department spokesperson, said the CDCR was in the midst of “conducting a full investigation.”
“We will hold people accountable that are in violation of policies,” Simas wrote.