LANSING – A Michigan prison supervisor who admitted using the N-word at a Michigan Department of Corrections Christmas party is facing more allegations of racism from a former corrections officer who is Muslim.
And court records show Capt. Frank Sawyer — who admitted in sworn testimony he has used the N-word racist slur between 30 to 100 times — did not lose a single day’s pay as part of his discipline for using the word at a 2017 department social event.
That raises questions about whether the department is treating racism seriously enough in a prison system where 55% of the prisoners who officers are supposed to monitor and protect are people of color, according to the department’s latest statistical report.
Sawyer is accused of calling a Muslim prison officer a terrorist and a “goat f—er,” amid allegations of widespread workplace racism directed at the officer that included tricking him into eating pork — a food off limits to devout Muslims — at a prison chili cook-off.
Hizam Yehia alleges in a federal lawsuit that Sawyer, his former supervisor, who admitted under oath to using the N-word in an apparent reference to another colleague, told Yehia he would never travel to the Middle East because “they” beat up women, have sex with goats and blow themselves up, according to testimony in the case. Yehia testified Sawyer told him that if he was going to blow up the Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson, where they both worked, to make sure he did it on Sawyer’s day off.
Other officers, including supervisors, regularly made cracks about Yehia being a terrorist or ISIS recruiter and one regularly greeted him with the words, “Allah, allah akbar boom,” in an apparent reference to Yehia setting off a bomb, according to evidence in the case. Others suggested he brought a camel to work or was carrying a bomb or wearing a bomb vest if he set off the metal detector when entering the prison to start his shift, according to sworn testimony. They also ridiculed him about his weight, Yehia testified.
Yehia’s allegations, which are backed up in part by sworn testimony from other current or former employees at Parnall, are just one example of persistent complaints of racism among Michigan prison employees.
But not only are the department and the Office of Attorney General Dana Nessel defending Sawyer, they are asking a federal judge to suppress testimony from a Black lieutenant at Parnall, who corroborates some of Yehia’s testimony.
Lt. Michael Doss said in an Aug. 10 declaration that he saw a co-worker telephone Yehia at work, using a Corrections Department phone line, and say: “I want to report that there is a terrorist in the building. He is a tall, heavy-set guy.” The co-worker — not Sawyer — was referencing Yehia “in a derogatory, racist way by insinuating that Mr. Yehia was a terrorist because he is Muslim,” Doss said in the signed statement.
Doss said he heard from co-workers that Yehia got harassed “all the time,” and that Sawyer told Yehia not to “blow the place up while I’m working.” This “was a discriminatory remark, aimed at harassing Mr. Yehia because of his race and religion,” Doss said.
In an Aug. 17 court filing, assistant Attorney General Patrick O’Brien said jurors should not get to hear the testimony from Doss because Doss is a prison manager and Yehia’s Detroit attorney, Jonathan Marko, contacted Doss about the case without first getting approval from the Corrections Department. That is a violation of court rules and the testimony from Doss should be suppressed and stricken from the record, O’Brien said.
Marko represents Doss in a separate federal lawsuit over Sawyer’s use of the N-word and the retaliation and ostracization Doss alleges he suffered after he complained about it. The Attorney General’s Office is defending Sawyer in the suit brought by Yehia, but Sawyer has his own attorney in the suit brought by Doss, in which the AG is only representing the department.
The testimony from Doss in the Yehia lawsuit is proper and no court rules were violated, Marko said in a court filing. What Doss said in his declaration in the Yehia case was entirely comprised of statements Doss made in connection with his own lawsuit against the department and Sawyer, and those comments were made before Yehia became a client, Marko said in a court filing.
Using the N-word at a company function might be a firing offense in the private sector, but it had no serious disciplinary consequences for Sawyer.
In a Jan. 14 deposition in the Yehia case, Sawyer denied harassing Yehia based on his race or religion, but admitted using the N-word at a department Christmas party on Dec. 16, 2017, when he said he did not want an “N” for a deputy warden. Sawyer testified that what he meant was that he did not want a deputy who would treat him poorly and he used “a bad choice of words.”
He estimated he had used the N-word between 30 and 100 times in his life, though he said it is not a word he normally uses.
Sawyer also testified that reports about his use of the slur spread quickly through the department. He received a five-day suspension over the incident, following an internal affairs investigation, but did not miss a day of work or lose any money from his paycheck, he testified. Instead, he had five days of annual leave time deducted from the leave time he had banked.
Doss alleged in his lawsuit that Sawyer “laughed and bragged about” his light punishment, and said he “would drink a beer for each day” of banked vacation time that was deducted.
Sawyer has no comment, said his Jackson attorney, Richard Lindsey. In his deposition, Sawyer denied those allegations.
But the department’s handling of the incident shows the state is not taking the issue of racism seriously enough, said Chris White, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, who believes racism is a major concern not just in police departments, but across the entire criminal justice system, including state prisons.
White said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should ask the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to take a detailed look at racism inside the prison system and how it is handled. Incidents of racism and brutality that the public finds out about are troubling enough, but another major worry is incidents that are never reported, as is likely the case with much of what goes on behind prison walls, White said.
“It should become a major focal point of the Whitmer administration to weed this out,” he said.
Through spokespersons, neither Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington, who reports to Whitmer, nor Nessel, would say whether they thought the loss of five banked leave days is appropriate punishment for a state employee’s use of the N-word. Both cited the ongoing litigation for declining to comment.
Sawyer, who was a lieutenant and Yehia’s supervisor when Yehia first came to Parnall in 2015, testified that Yehia was a good employee who had some time and attendance issues that were not serious. He testified Yehia was the only Arab and only Muslim co-worker he knew aboutin Michigan’s prison system. He denied ever making disparaging remarks about Yehia. He also denied hearing anyone else do it.
But Sawyer did recall an incident involving Yehia inadvertently consuming pork at a chili cook-off at Parnall, which he said was to raise money for veterans. He said he heard about the incident after the fact, from an officer.
One officer brought in chili that contained pork, and Yehia ate it “because he didn’t know what was in it,” Sawyer testified.
In his own deposition, Yehia, who is seeking unspecified monetary damages, plus attorney fees, described how someone switched the lids on two pots of chili so that it appeared the one that had pork in it did not contain pork.
“They laughed, they all laughed, and said: ‘Dude, I don’t see you turning into fire,’ ” Yehia testified. ” ‘Aren’t you supposed to go to hell right away after you eat this?’ “
In an interview with the Free Press, Yehia said that eating the pork made him feel like he had committed a sin.
“I was very stressed out. I remember that day, going home, I couldn’t breathe. I was very angry at what happened. I called my mom.”
Yehia, who resigned in January 2019 and now works for the Federal Protective Service in Washington, D.C., guarding federal buildings, said the racist remarks and harassment were a daily occurrence.
“I didn’t go tell the supervisors because those guys were in on it, too,” he said. “It’s just very mind-boggling.”
O’Brien, the assistant attorney general, said in a court filing that in order to show “constructive dismissal,” or being forced to quit, Yehia must show his employer intentionally made his working conditions intolerable. He has not met that burden, O’Brien said.
In fact, Yehia quit because he wanted to move to Virginia, where his wife was living, and before that had repeatedly volunteered to work overtime with his alleged harasser.
Three former co-workers of Yehia’s gave sworn statements to Markocorroborating aspects of Yehia’s allegations, though all three appeared to soften their accounts in later statements the department obtained from them and submitted as part of its defense.
Anthony White testified Yehia was an excellent worker whose optimism and enthusiasm gradually changed to sullenness and depression, in the face of the ongoing harassment.
Co-workers would talk to him about having a bomb, saying things like, ‘Hopefully you don’t have a bomb strapped to you today,’ ” White said in a Jan. 16 affidavit.
“Employees are scared to report harassment because it is well-known within the facility that people who report this type of thing will be retaliated against and ostracized.”
Mike Herman, a department employee who worked with Yehia from 2015 to September 2018, testified in a Jan. 28 affidavit he witnessed constant harassment of Yehia on the basis of his race, national origin, weight and religion.
“The harassment was regular, consistent, and pervasive, and I personally observed it at least once a week,” Herman testified.
He said when officers checked Yehia’s identification at the gate, when he reported to work, they would refer to him as a terrorist. If there was a terrorist incident in the news, colleagues would say things like, “Don’t blow up the place now.” They also made false claims that Yehia was married to his cousin, rode a camel to work, and was a member of ISIS, Herman testified.
The harassment often took place in front of supervisors and “sometimes the supervisors participated in it,” Herman said.
Arnold Kocibelli, a department employee who worked at Parnall from June 2015 until March 2017, gave similar testimony in a Jan. 21 affidavit.
On one occasion, in front of about a dozen employees, an officer referenced a recent terrorist attack and said to Yehia: “Your people are at it again,” Kocibelli said.
All three employees seemed to backtrack somewhat in later signed declarations given to Corrections Department officials.
White said in a June 15 statement that he could generally not recall who made the statements he overheard and he does not recall Sawyer, whom he considers “a friend,” making any comments about Yehia’s race or religion.
“At times, Mr. Yehia would engage back-and-forth and make jokes with other officers during shift change, relating to national origin or religion,” White said. “Other times, he did not. I did not think the banter between the officers was that bad — but I do not know how Mr. Yehia felt.”
Herman said in an April 1 declaration that he also does not recall who made many of the remarks he overheard about Yehia, but does not recall hearing any from Sawyer.
“At times, but not always, I personally witnessed Mr. Yehia make a joke back to a worker by using a term like ‘redneck,’ ” Herman said.
Kocibelli, in a June 15 declaration, also said that in most cases he does not recall who made the comments about Yehia he overheard.
Yehia told the Free Press that some of the statements in the employees’ later statements are false.
“I would never joke about someone’s nationality or where they are from,” he said. “I would never call someone a redneck, just putting a huge target on my back.”
Marko said the evolving statements from witnesses who still work for the department are disturbing.
“It’s very unusual,” Marko said. “You have to ask yourself: Why are they changing their story?”
Marko said the case features both changing testimony and “a threat from the AG’s Office that they are going to erase history — basically change facts that are there.”