Suit claims Ulster County jail brass biased against black staffers

One of the pods at the Ulster County Jail.

Five black Ulster County corrections officers claim that they were denied promotions and choice assignments, disciplined more harshly than white colleagues and subjected to racist abuse and harassment while working at the Ulster County Jail.

The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed in federal court in August by Rhinebeck-based attorney Nathaniel K. Charny. In the lawsuit, four current and one former correction officers claim a pattern of racial discrimination by the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and jail officials dating back decades. The suit was filed by current corrections officers Norman L. James, Tyrone Brodhead, Alphonso A. Lacey and Pamela Lancaster and former officer Timothy Ross. The suit names Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum as a defendant, as well as jail wardens Louis T. Russo Sr. and Jon Becker. The officers’ complaint details years of alleged discrimination that Charny said was fueled by a “boys’ club” culture at the jail, where promotions and sought-after assignments were funneled to an all-white inner circle. Those in favor with top jail officials, the suit asserts, could also count on protection from serious consequences for misconduct, including racial harassment of black co-workers.

“There’s a boys’ club that’s picking and choosing who gets the promotions, who gets the good assignments,” said Charny. “And they’re choosing other white guys.”


VanBlarcum declined comment on the suit this week.


The ‘racial glass ceiling’

The lawsuit alleges that senior jail officials routinely denied promotions and the kind of training and assignments that led to promotion to black officers. Charny said that he was only able to document two instances of African-Americans rising above the entry rank of corrections officer. The lawsuit claims that one of them, former First Sgt. Michael Knox, was forced to resign by Becker and VanBlarcum shortly after VanBlarcum’s election in 2007. A second black officer was promoted to corporal in 2005 only to be demoted following a traffic infraction in 2012.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, 18-year veteran Alphonso Lacey, alleges that he was passed over for promotion to corporal 22 times since he first sought the rank in 2001. In each case, the suit alleges, Russo chose a white officer for the post instead. Most of those promoted, the suit alleges, were junior to Lacey. In 13 cases they were officers he had trained and in five cases they were officers who scored lower on the corporal’s exam. Lacey also claims that his repeated requests for additional training for inmate intake and other specialized jobs were ignored. Another officer, Pamela Lancaster, claims in the suit that she was verbally offered training to perform inmate intake only to see the training opportunity go to white co-workers. Lancaster also claims that she is assigned to work undesirable inmate housing units more often than her white colleagues.

The lawsuit also charges that when black officers have achieved prestigious positions, they have been sidelined. Officer Norman L. James has worked at the jail since 1988. In 1990 he was assigned to the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team — a special tactical unit that handles high-risk prisoner transports, unrest at the jail and other dangerous assignments — and rose to second in command of the team led by Warden Becker. James alleges that despite his seniority, Becker routinely denied him sought-after assignments and special missions, giving the jobs to white officers in his inner circle. James also alleges that he was never entrusted with disciplinary or managerial work unless it involved a black SERT member. James also alleges that he was subjected to harassment after he complained to Becker and VanBlarcum about racist comments and behavior directed at black officers and inmates by white staff. The clash with Becker culminated in 2015 when James claims that he was removed from the SERT team and denied a spot on another sought-after detail, the transport team, after he failed an agility test that senior officers are usually exempt from.


Disparate discipline

Along with denial of promotions and opportunities, the plaintiffs in the case also allege that they and other black officers are disciplined more harshly than white co-workers. As with promotions, the suit alleges members of Becker and Russo’s all-white inner circle benefited from their connections, while black officers could count on “swift and stringent repercussions” for similar behavior.

As one example, the suit points towards the treatment of Officer Timothy Ross who was forced to resign in 2012 after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a false worker’s compensation claim for a 2008 knee injury. The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff’s office pursued an investigation of his claim with “zeal and malice” despite the fact that his injury was well documented. When he was arrested, the suit claims, jail staff delayed his wife’s efforts to post bail until he could be “paraded” in front of inmates and locked in a cell with them. By contrast, the suit claims that when Sgt. Charles Polacco — described as a “close ally” of Ross and Becker — was found to have falsely stated on a worker’s compensation claim that an off-duty injury occurred on duty on he was suspended with pay for 15 days.

Another black officer, Tyrone Brodhead, claims that he was hounded by jail officials for years based on false allegations of drug trafficking. The lawsuit claims that Brodhead has been repeatedly targeted for investigation and harassment since 2000. The suit claims that Becker, Russo and VanBlarcum even attempted to set up Brodhead by encouraging inmates to identify him as a drug dealer. In 2000, one inmate withdrew from a plea agreement with prosecutors and told a court that he had fabricated allegations of drug smuggling by Brodhead at the behest of Becker and Russo. More recently, Brodhead was suspected of being the source of narcotics and other contraband coming into the jail. The suit alleges that at least two inmates were asked by investigators to identify Brodhead or “A black SERT team member” as the source of the contraband, while Brodhead was subjected to continual locker searches and questioning. The investigation of Brodhead ended only after a white corrections officer was caught on camera buying suboxone and marijuana in the jail’s parking lot. An internal investigation, run by Becker, dismissed Brodhead’s official complaint that his targeting by investigators was discriminatory.

To support the claim that black officers are punished more harshly than white ones, the lawsuit points to several examples of white jail staff allegedly getting lenient treatment for serious offenses. The suit notes, for example, that while Knox was forced from his job and Lacey ‘scrutinized” over “family issues,” a white corporal who was arrested and convicted of a crime for smashing a beer bottle into a woman’s face was allowed to keep his rank and job. The suit also names a lieutenant who has never faced on-the-job repercussions for being “the subject of numerous domestic violence calls.”

“People make mistakes,” said Charny. “And whether it was little mistakes or big-ticket mistakes, the black people were treated differently and more harshly.”


‘Mandingo hunters’ and ‘colored girls’

The lawsuit further claims that VanBlarcum, Becker and Russo presided over a jail where overt displays of racism by staff were tolerated and those who complained about it told to “have a sense of humor” or “get a thicker skin.”

In the complaint, Officer Pamela Lancaster said that when she complained about Polacco’s use of “derogatory language directed at blacks” Russo and others suggested that she be “more forgiving” and less easily offended. Polacco was forced to verbally apologize, but no further action was taken despite an investigation supporting Lancaster’s allegation. On another occasion in 2015, Lancaster claims in the suit, she complained of a sergeant referring to an inmate as “that colored girl” only to be told by Russo that “colored” was an acceptable use of language that did not violate any department policy. Lancaster also reports in the lawsuit that one of the K-9s employed by the department is commonly referred to as “Mandingo Hunter.” Other officers in the lawsuit report that use of derogatory terms for African-Americans was common at the jail and complaints about those terms ignored.

“When officers reported these kinds of explicitly racist comments and interactions, the response was always, ‘It’s just locker room talk,’” said Charny.

The discrimination lawsuit is the second filed by corrections staff during VanBlarcum’s tenure. In 2009 five female corrections officers sued the department claiming that they were subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination and a hostile work environment. Two of the women won monetary judgments following a jury trial. Two others had their claims dismissed. A fifth plaintiff dropped out the lawsuit after she was promoted. One of the claims substantiated by the jury remains on appeal.

Charny said he had engaged attorney Steve Bergstein, who represented some of those women, to act as his co-counsel based on his knowledge of the prevailing culture at the jail and a similar pattern of alleged discrimination and favoritism.

“It’s very similar [to the sex discrimination suit],” said Charny. “It’s the same model in terms of this boys’ club.”


With additional reporting by Hugh Reynolds