The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prison guard trainees were photographed giving a Nazi salute. The entire class was fired.

Thirty-seven West Virginia Corrections and Rehabilitation employees gave an apparent Nazi salute during their class graduation picture on Nov. 27. (Video: WCHS8)

Most graduation photos capture candidates on the cusp of a promising future. But for one class of cadets at West Virginia’s state corrections academy captured performing a Nazi salute, their final class picture marks the end of their careers.

Gov. Jim Justice (R) announced Monday that he had approved the recommendation of his cabinet secretary that all of the cadets pictured in the photo captioned “Hail Byrd!” be terminated.

The decision affects at least 32 cadets. One additional staff member at the Corrections Academy was also recommended for firing, joining two other workers who were fired on Dec. 6, a day after the photo of the training class emerged publicly. Four other academy staff members will be suspended without pay.

“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said in a statement announcing his acceptance of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy’s recommendation. “I also said that this act needed to result in real consequences — terminations and dismissals. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of State government.”

W. Va. corrections employees fired, suspended following ‘disturbing’ photo of trainees performing Nazi salute

The report did not identify by name the cadets and academy staff members who will be terminated or include an unblurred version of the photo, per privacy protocols for state employees undergoing a termination or disciplinary process; it is unclear if the instructors named in the report are the staffers who were recommended for firing.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which advocates for Muslim civil rights, praised the governor’s decision.

“We welcome the firing of these individuals and hope it sends the strong message that anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry and hate will not be tolerated in West Virginia or any other state,” council spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement Monday.

Justice’s announcement marks the end of a nearly month-long investigation into the circumstances surrounding the photo, which had angered state officials as an embarrassing and insensitive incident that undermined the credibility of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which is overseen by Military Affairs.

The summary of the report, released Monday, revealed a staggering lack of judgment spanning from the trainees to their captains, with multiple missed opportunities to head off the embarrassment; Capt. Annette Daniels-Watts, identified in the report by her rank and last name, presciently said upon seeing the photo, “Well, that is going to bite us in the [expletive].”

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Daniels-Watts told investigators she found the photo “horrible” and that it called to mind incidents of college students making the gesture in viral photos that were later criticized as anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, she did not remove the photo, copies of which had by then been printed to be stuffed into graduation packets, the report said. Daniels-Watts would later tell department officials at a meeting about the picture, “Do I resign now or what?” and admitted, “I saw the picture and did nothing.”

The report found that the Nazi salute originated with a cadet who encouraged classmates to use it “as a sign of respect for Byrd,” a reference to instructor Karrie Byrd. Several other cadets reportedly objected to making a Nazi salute and called it out as inappropriate, only for the instigating cadet to tell them, “Look at me, I am black and I am doing it,” the report said.

Two other instructors who saw the class make the gesture reportedly reprimanded the cadets, thinking that ended the issue. The report states that separately, Byrd told the class “she saw nothing wrong with the gesture and allowed it to continue.”

When it came time for the graduation photo, several cadets declined to make the gesture, prompting retakes of the photo until everyone participated in the salute. The report said of the 10 cadets who were uncomfortable, three relented and the rest raised clenched fists instead; the cadets told Military Affairs investigators they acquiesced to Byrd out of fear they wouldn’t graduate for disobeying an instructor.

In the explanation for the recommendation to terminate all of the cadets, even though some initially resisted, Sandy wrote that their conduct had undermined the department’s values and damaged the reputation, perception and morale of corrections employees.

Employees recommended for firing have the option to file a grievance and contest the outcome of the process.

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