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Correctional officer photo causes outrage, controversy in West Virginia

CHARLESTON — A photo showing a graduating class of correctional officers giving a Nazi salute is resulting in suspensions and possible firings after news of the photo came out Thursday.

Gov. Jim Justice issued a statement Thursday after multiple media outlets reported a memo issued Wednesday 4 by Secretary Jeff Sandy of the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety announced the suspension of multiple employees of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

A request for the memo and photo was sent to the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Thursday afternoon. The photo shows graduates of Basic Training Class No. 18 — faces blurred — with hands raised into a Nazi salute. The text “HAIL BYRD!” was above the photo. Department spokesperson Lawrence Messina said that “Byrd” was in reference to an employee at the training center.

Training for Basic Training Class No. 18 started Oct. 21 and ended Nov. 27. The photo also included the state seal and the seal of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitations.

In the Wednesday memo, Sandy said Betsy Jividen, commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitations, asked for all copies of the photo to be destroyed, sent to the Department of Military Affairs or taken out of circulation. Sandy also said faith and community representatives have been informed and he asked for their help in addressing the agency’s policies and training initiatives.

“I have seen the photo,” Sandy wrote in his memo. “It is distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive, and completely inappropriate. It undermines the high standards that have been set for our Division of Corrections and Rehabilitations. It betrays the professionalism I have seen time and time again displayed and practiced by our brave correctional employees.”

Justice, in his statement Thursday, joined with Sandy in condemning the photo and called on the Department of Military Affairs to continue its investigation.

“I condemn the photo…in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said. “I have directed Secretary Jeff Sandy…to continue actively investigating this incident and I have ordered the termination of all those that are found to be involved in this conduct. This will not be tolerated on my watch — within the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation — or within any agency of state government.”

According to Sandy’s memo, several employees have been suspended for their part in allowing the photo to be taken.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, the only Jewish member of the Legislature, expressed displeasure at the news of the photo’s content.

“These correctional officers do not possess the judgment to be entrusted with the responsibility of their job,” Pushkin said on Twitter. “It’s stupid at best, disgusting at worst.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached atsadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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