April 12, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 5:30 PM EST
If black workers at a prison sue because of a racially hostile atmosphere, how bad is it for the black inmates?
Unfortunately, that's not a rhetorical question. A lawsuit filed by four African-American employees of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in federal court in Hartford April 2 alleges a long-standing pattern and practice of discrimination based on skin color, and it names the current Deputy Secretary of the State as a defendant.
Lesley Mara, who currently serves as Deputy Secretary of the State under Susan Bysiewicz, was formerly the superintendent of the troubled prison for almost 100 teenaged boys, mostly African-American and Latino.
The plaintiffs - Trinene Davis, Shirley Weaver, Regina Moore and Michael Ayers - claim that defendant state officers Mara, Lisa Flowers-Murphy, Jeannette Perez, Brett Rayford and Jeane Gavey promoted an atmosphere of racial intolerance and harsh punishment against black workers.
While Governor M. Jodi Rell has said she wants the Department of Children and Families to close Middletown's CJTS by 2008, problems have always plagued the facility.
But the complaint of racial employment discrimination is not unique to DCF. This is the second lawsuit in three months to allege a racially hostile environment in a state agency. In February, several black women filed a suit painting a similar picture in the Department of Transportation.
This civil rights action against CJTS administrators, filed by Hartford attorney Francis Miniter, seeks compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys fees in a jury trial. Miniter did not return multiple phone calls for comment.
Plaintiffs Davis and Weaver began working for DCF in 1991 and 1992 respectively. Both Moore and Ayers started their DCF careers in 1998 as union rank and file.
Defendants Mara and Rayford were respectively the Superintendent and Acting Superintendent of CJTS from 2002 to 2003. Defendants Flowers-Murphy was Assistant Superintendent, while Perez served as Human Resource Officer and Gavey worked in the Human Resources Department.
The plaintiffs claim that they "have been subjected to racially motivated disciplinary actions, and such disciplinary actions are meted out to African-American employees at a rate far exceeding those given to non-African-American employees."
The punishments include "harsher treatment for tardiness and absenteeism...closer scrutiny on the camera monitoring system...more frequent punishment for being 'less than alert' than other employees, even when white employees have slept in group meetings."
The complaint further alleges that defendants "failed to investigate disciplinary complaints made by persons of color against white employees."
Defendants also stand accused of ignoring "complains of racial discrimination by African-American employees and thereafter regarded the persons complaining as suspicious or mentally abnormal, yet treated such complaints by white employees against black employees seriously."
The plaintiffs maintain that defendants even went so far as to remove African-American employees for "'workplace violence' in the absence of violence and ordered psychological examinations on them."
The plaintiffs offer a laundry list of evidence for a glass ceiling for blacks. "They have been denied promotions for racially motivated reasons," the complaint says, "so that the numbers of African-American employees in middle management and especially in upper management is vastly disproportional to the rate of employment of African-Americans at CJTS."
Overall, the atmosphere is damaging to the mission of the facility, the complaint says. The plaintiffs "have been systemically undermined in the eyes of their subordinates and the residents of CJTS far more frequently than similarly situated employees who are not African-American," and "they have been harassed, both in front of other employees and residents and in private, for racially motivated reasons."
The complaint also indicates that the hostile work environment dated back to 1991, when plaintiff Davis first began working there.
Mara and Rayford were Superintendent and Acting Superintendent in 2002 and 2003, according to the Connecticut State Library website. But they are the only named defendant Superintendents, and the complaint says they were the ones in charge during the period relevant to the discrimination.
Deputy Secretary of the State Mara is often heard on-air or in the news with Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz. Derek Slap, the Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director for the Secretary of State's office said via email: "The Attorney General's Office handles any lawsuit filed against a state agency so I would refer to you the AG's office for a comment on the status of this lawsuit."
Before heading CJTS, Mara served as national executive director of Lawyers for Children America, "a non-profit organization that recruits and trains lawyers from private law firms and corporate law departments to represent children on a pro bono basis in hearings involving abuse and neglect," according to a biography published in the 1999 New England Law Librarians Conference at Quinnipiac Law. Mara also worked at Halloran and Sage and Aetna.
From August 2000 to July 2002, she served as head of Long Lane School for Girls. In full disclosure, I worked at Long Lane for several months in the winter of 2002, teaching journalism to students there as part of a contract between Echoes from the Streets, Our Piece of the Pie and the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. I complained to my supervisors at OPP about the conditions at Long Lane.
Shortly after Mara moved to CJTS. But her tenure there was rocky. The staff passed a vote of no-confidence in Mara's leadership. A report (a 101-page .pdf) from the Office of Child Advocate about the tenure of Mara and co-defendant Flower-Murphy at CJTS documents some of the trouble.
On page 58, the report notes: "Lisa Flower-Murphy and Lesley Mara are not licensed psychologists or social workers. Yet they facilitated profound curriculum change to a clinically-based behavior program that had been developed by a psychiatrist with specific expertise."
Acting superintendent Dr. Brett Rayford, and Bureau Chief, Bureau of Adolescent and Transitional Services. At one time, Rayford was the Director of Health Services at the Connecticut Department of Corrections. There, he dealt with mental health, substance abuse and medical services in Connecticut prisons. He spoke with Human Rights Watch for its investigation about mental health and prisons.
"I am confident that Dr. Rayford will establish further improvements of our juvenile justice programs," she wrote. "Significant progress made since his arrival at the Training School already has demonstrated his effectiveness and leadership. I expect this positive impact to grow in his new and expanded role."
Gov. Rell asked Dunbar to resign in December. Former state Republican state representative Brian Mattiello of Torrington was Dunbar's chief of staff. He is now acting commissioner of DCF. I emailed him a copy of the lawsuit, and I haven't heard back from him.
For years, Rayford has traveled the country speaking at conventions, like in New Orleans in 1998, he addressed the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law about the "Discharging of High Risk Patients." Or just this March in Arizona at the eighth annual National Fatherhood and Families Conference, he discussed the "Collaboration of Connecticut State Agencies: Addressing the Needs of Young Fathers."
During a recent tour of CJTS, a pair of shift supervisors suggested that more than 40 young fathers are serving time in at the Middletown facility.
Gov. Rell reassigned Rayford from CJTS after taking over the reigns of from the resigned John G. Rowland, according to this Hartford Courant piece by Mark Pazniokas of July 10, 2004.
“There is a visual effect when you walk in. All the boys that come here are acutely aware that they are not home,” Rayford said.
According to Rayford, the kids are expected to learn how to cooperate in an environment alien to them.
And if the events alleged in this complaint are true, the African-American employees are expected to work in an environment hostile to them.