Several West Virginia state employees have been suspended after a photo emerged depicting a training class of roughly 30 correctional officers performing a Nazi salute.
Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Director Jeff Sandy sent a letter to all employees Wednesday describing the photo as “distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive, and completely inappropriate.”
The photo, on state letterhead, shows almost all of Basic Training Class No. 18 displaying the Nazi salute. Text above the photo reads: “HAIL BYRD!”
Sandy’s letter states that the employees have been suspended and are under investigation, although it does not describe the photo itself.
Brian Abraham, an attorney for Gov. Jim Justice, said Thursday the “Hail Byrd” line refers to the trainees’ instructor.
The Nazi salute was used to hail Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Germany dictator who directed the slaughter of millions of Jews and others during the Holocaust, before and during World War II.
WCHS-TV first reported on Sandy’s letter, although not the content of the photo.
Rabbi Victor Urecki, of B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston and regular figure around the Capitol, saw the photo. He thanked state officials for briefing him and other religious leaders in advance, but expressed concern over what comes next.
“Seeing the photo was deeply shocking and troubling to me and I know it will be devastating to not just members of my community but any person of decency,” he said. “This will create difficult days and hard conversations for our state. While I want to hear more about how it all unfolded, this terrible incident reminds me we have a lot of work to do in educating about the dangers of hate and the evils perpetrated in the past and can happen again.”
DMAPS released the photo Thursday in response to a public records request. It blurred out the employees’ faces, citing employee privacy rights.
The controversy comes amid heightened legal and public scrutiny of DMAPS. Accusations of correctional officers sexually abusing inmates and the covering up of wrongful deaths are trickling through the legal system. The Gazette-Mail also recently spotlighted a practice within the West Virginia State Police, housed under DMAPS, of clearing troopers systematically after internal investigations while taxpayers spend millions settling the lawsuits filed against them.
Justice released a statement Thursday about the photo in question.
“I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class #18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said. “I have directed Secretary Jeff Sandy of the Dept. of Military Affairs and Public Safety to continue actively investigating this incident and I have ordered the termination of all those that are found to be involved in this conduct.”
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, one of few Jewish people in the West Virginia Legislature, said no one in that photo has any business in a position of power over anyone as a correctional officer.
“At best, this is an extreme lack of judgement for people who have a lot of power over other people’s lives,” he said. “At worst, it’s just blatant anti-Semitism, and it’s disgusting.”
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, issued a statement, as well.
“This photo is not West Virginia; these are not our values,” she said. “And to both the local Jewish community, and the world audience that will unfortunately now see this, let me be clear: We condemn this ignorant, hateful display in the strongest terms possible.”
Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, who is Jewish as well, said in response to the photo that, with so many people and organizations seeking to divide, West Virginians need to come together.
“It makes me sad and angry that we’re still dealing with things like this in 2019,” he said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the behavior displayed in the photo warrants an immediate investigation.
“[A]nyone who participated in any hateful and disgusting action should not be able to work for or be paid by the federal or state government and should be removed from their position immediately,” Manchin wrote. “It is unacceptable and should not be tolerated whatsoever. This is not the West Virginia I know or grew up in.”