Feces in a locker and other harassment: Racism is rife in King County Corrections, employees say
hen Anthony Eigner was hired as a corrections officer at the King County Jail in 2014, he soon became aware of a toxic undercurrent: racist jokes and harassment by white coworkers who said he looked like a ’70s porn star when he grew out a small Afro, and who compared his family to the movie “Black Panther.”
He reported these slights to higher ups, his wife Joe Cynthia Lucas-Eigner said. But this type of behavior continued.
In 2018, after requests to be assigned to a less stressful post were ignored, Eigner got into an argument with a corrections sergeant who rocked his stun gun from its holster and threatened to forcefully remove Eigner from the jail. There was an internal investigation into claims that Eigner had disobeyed orders, and he was fired. Six months later he died by suicide.
In a statement the corrections department maintained that they investigate all allegations of wrongdoing and that they do not discriminate against employees based on race or other protected classes.
But in addition to Eigner, five other Black corrections officers, three former and two currently working within the department, told KUOW that what Eigner documented was a mere glimpse into a larger problem of institutional racism.
These Black officers told KUOW they have been punished and humiliated for complaining. One officer, Steve Porter, a 38-year veteran of the jail, said that twice in the last five years, someone has put human feces in the shoes in his locker.
And now, amid a nationwide movement for civil rights that has focused on law enforcement, they are speaking out.
MAGA vs BLM
In April, two officers went to work wearing red baseball hats emblazoned with President Trump’s slogan – MAGA, for “Make America Great Again” – according to employee complaints leaked to KUOW.
“The hat has become a symbol of us vs. them, of exclusion and suspicion, of white male privilege, of violence and hate,” reads an employee email to John Diaz, director of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. The email was written in April. “For minorities and the disenfranchised, it can spark a kind of gut-level disgust that brings ancestral ghosts to the forefront. And here, in 2020, our painful past present.”
Unlike the two employees who entered the King County building with MAGA hats, a Black officer was confronted for wearing a President Barack Obama shirt, and another person was confronted for donning a “Black Lives Matter” shirt, the email continues. This attire sparked a subsequent department email condemning the shirts.
Other corrections officers have posted racist memes on social media, anti-Black rhetoric and hateful sentiments aimed at people protesting against racial injustice across America.
“These are people that carry weapons, people in leadership roles,” said a current Black employee. They asked that KUOW not name them for fear that they would be retaliated against. “This makes me feel unsafe. I don’t know who I can trust and depend on in this line of work.”
The employee said it feels like two departments exist within King County corrections — one for people of color and one for whites — and that there is a “perception that white officers are free to do whatever they want to do.”
One of the social media posts in question features a photo of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenage gunman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting dead a second protester.
Eric Dean Wilkerson, a King County corrections officer, wrote below the photo: “Great Shot! Two less votes for Uncle Joe,” referring to Joe Biden, the Democrats' nominee for president. “Trump Trump Trump!!” Wilkerson continued.
This comment was captured in a screenshot and shared by Sadé Smith, a local attorney and former King County public defender. On Twitter, Smith shared screen shots of five Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention employees making anti-protester comments. A whistleblower sent her these photos, she said.
In response to staff concerns about offensive social media posts and political messages, Diaz sent a message to employees on June 15, outlining the Department’s expectations in these areas, said Noah Haglund, spokesperson for the detention department.
“This is a large organization with a diverse workforce doing a very difficult job,” said Diaz in a statement to KUOW. “The vast majority do their jobs very well. We will not tolerate racism or the promotion of violence on social media or other forums. That applies in the workplace or on personal time.
Haglund said there are three employees currently under investigation for social media posts — Sgt. Wilkerson and officer Tyson Cope, who are both on administrative leave, and officer Gabriel Vigil, who is not on leave.
Sgt. Michael Drake received corrective action in the form of verbal counseling, related to his social media posts published earlier this year.
Among the screenshots shared by attorney Sadé Smith were photos that captured a meme shared by Mike Breiner, who lists himself on Facebook as a King County corrections officer. By the next morning, the account appeared to be deleted.
Posts on Breiner’s Facebook account disparage Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man who was killed by Atlanta police in June, after officers approached him in a Wendy’s drive-thru. Another post shared by Breiner falsely claimed U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is affiliated with Al Qaida.
In a 2016 lawsuit against Breiner and other officers, former inmate Adan Ibrahim Yusuf alleged that Breiner pushed him onto the floor, punched him and broke his nose. Breiner, through his attorney, argued that Yusuf punched Briener. The lawsuit was dismissed because Yusuf had already pleaded guilty to assaulting the officer.
“The focus right now is on [Seattle Police] and defunding the police, but this oppressive system is a (multi-part) system,” Smith said. “It’s not just police and not just what’s happening to protesters.”
Complaints lead to little improvement
Coworkers described Eigner as easygoing, reliable, competent. He was a member of the King County Equity and Social Justice Committee and would often guide new officers through their first weeks on the job. Before a career in corrections, he served as a U.S. Marine.
He was committed to the job, his wife Lucas-Eigner said, and believed that the hostile work environment, as he saw it, had to change. When a sergeant told him to fight an inmate, he refused, she said. He told supervisors about officers who used excessive force on brown and Black inmates.
“Anthony complained numerous times he had to physically break up [officers] and inmates, usually African Americans or Latinos, men or women, they didn’t care as long as you had brown skin,” his wife Joe Cynthia Lucas-Eigner told KUOW.
Steve Porter, a King County corrections officer, told KUOW that reporting poor behavior leads to zero change. Porter, who is Black, has worked for King County corrections for 38 years. Twice within the last five years, Porter said he has returned to his locker and found toilet paper soiled with feces in his shoes.
Three times he had to cut the lock off his locker, because someone had filled the keyhole with an unknown substance. Someone else wrote insults on the outside of his locker.
One time his locker was in such bad condition, Porter said, a sergeant cleaned it for him.
He reported this behavior, which he said appeared to be racially fueled, but said these reports resulted in apologies but no concrete change.
“I was angry and hard to get along with,” Porter recalled about how he felt. “I was mad, but what could I do, you know? I reported it. What could I do after that? I was in no position to quit, and they said they couldn’t put cameras in the locker room.”
Porter went to counseling and moved on.
For others, whistleblowing results in retaliation.
Sharon Coleman-Askew, a Black corrections officer, has worked for King County corrections since 1987. She sued King County in 2015, after she said she was subjected to discrimination because of her gender and was retaliated against for reporting discrimination in the department.
Coleman-Askew said she was subjected to racial and sexual overtures by Capt. Jerry Hardy, another Black employee, who would make unwelcome sexual advances. Hardy would call Coleman-Askew to his office, and order her to sit close to him so “he could observe her" during roll call. Hardy would also stand behind Coleman-Askew, as she used the treadmill in the gym “constantly invading her personal space,” according to the lawsuit.
Coleman-Askew reported these advances for more than six years to her immediate supervisors, beginning in 2009, but no action was taken against Hardy, according to the lawsuit.
Instead, her supervisors told her to go out with Hardy.
Nowhere to turn
Henry Cannon, a retired Black corrections officer with King County for 35 years, said he didn’t experience overt racist acts – the institutionalized practices were what stuck out to him. Like how employees with less experience and education were promoted ahead of him.
“It's not good enough to do the same job -- I had to do it that much better to get ahead and even then it wasn’t enough,” Cannon said.
He and another former jail employee alleged the department suffered from nepotism, and was full of high-ranking employees in positions above their relatives and friends.
The corrections department follows the King County’s Employment Conflicts of Interest Policy. The policy says while it is okay for people who are related to work in the same department, there must not be business or job-related conflicts of interest.
“It is not permissible for one relative to supervise or make employment-related decisions about the other relative,” the policy reads.
Reporting a coworker can be complicated when employees are related, Cannon said.
The mandatory chain of command, which said officers had to report something to their immediate supervisor and not go above them, or face being reprimanded, made reporting poor behavior even more difficult, Cannon said. Complaints could also be filed with human resources.
But even directors who had open-door policies, which said officers could bypass that chain of command, weren’t concerned with issues of race, Cannon said.
“I didn’t have anyone that I could go to that really cared,” he said.
Five current or former King County Black corrections officers told KUOW that they felt they had nowhere to turn when they faced discrimination. That when racial issues were brought to white managers, these managers got defensive and the officers’ concerns weren’t taken seriously.
Eigner hits his breaking point
Eigner frequently worked in booking at the King County jail, viewed as one of the more stressful posts. In a workplace investigation interview in 2018, he said he was given this spot more frequently than other employees.
“It’s just burning me out,” he said. “I don’t do anything but booking. That’s it.”
His wife Joe Cynthia Lucas-Eigner said she discovered after his death that he had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Eigner asked to be given a lighter workload, outside of booking, one day per week. He made this request to Capt. Michael Allen more than once, according to records.
He requested the 11th floor, a favorable spot for officers at the jail.
Eigner was never assigned to the 11th floor. An officer with less experience was given the post instead.
And then came the final straw.
On the night of July 9, 2018, Eigner was seated on a chair on the 11th floor, where he wasn't assigned, with his coffee in one hand and his prayer beads in the other, according to statements made in a workplace investigation. He was there to make a point.
A higher ranking corrections employee, Sgt. Michael Drake appeared, and asked why Eigner was on the floor. Drake gave Eigner a direct order to go to the 7th floor.
Eigner pushed back, and questioned why someone with less experience than him was given the spot on the 11th floor, according to an audio recording.
Drake ordered Eigner to come with him back down to a lower floor. Eigner wrote that Drake placed his left hand on his taser and pointed his finger at Eigner.
“Sir, we are going to have to forcefully remove someone from the facility,” Drake said into his radio, according to Eigner’s statement.
A heated verbal argument broke out between Eigner and Drake. The night ended with Eigner being sent home, and soon after placed on administrative leave.
Following an internal investigation, which found Eigner was insubordinate, he was terminated with cause. Multiple witnesses, cited in the investigation, said Eigner wasn’t acting like himself that night.
Joe Cynthia Lucas-Eigner said her husband spiraled. The stress from losing a stable income added to the unfair treatment he’d felt at work. Eigner killed himself six months later on April 12, 2019.
Looking back on the night, his wife and coworkers said Eigner was pushed to the brink. His job chipped away at his dignity and sense of self, pushing him to the 11th floor. She wishes he was given a listening ear in that moment.
Anthony, his wife said, is just one of thousands ticking closer to a breaking point.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service answered by trained staff 24 hours per day, everyday. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 273TALK to 839863.