Jailhouse Rumble

If racial strife and political bickering were crimes, the entire staff of Dade County's corrections department would be locked up

Manning is mistaken. At the time of the April 1994 meeting between Burke and Felton, county records show that Burke was no longer chairman of the commission's public safety committee, which has limited supervision of the corrections department. Rather, he was chairman of the finance committee, which has nothing to do with the operation of the county's jails.

Manning adds that he doesn't understand why this meeting is even being raised as an issue: "Obviously nothing happened from that because I didn't become assistant director."

Burke says he finds Felton's allegations disturbing because "as a fellow African American I've tried to protect him" from questions that have been raised about his conduct and character. "People have attempted to help this guy by not publicizing certain things that would be embarrassing to him," Burke claims. That may change, Burke warns, because "this guy has a big problem with the way he operates. . . . He thinks attacking me is the only way he is going to get to keep his job."

The type of political cronyism Felton alleges is certainly not unique to corrections. Several commissioners maintain a special interest in certain county departments that goes beyond the expected standard review. But other problems Felton began experiencing were indeed unique.

A form of bureaucratic apartheid exists in Dade County government. Out of the county's 59 departments, only eight have black directors, and only two would be considered to lead major departments -- corrections and solid waste.

While blacks make up 35 percent of the county government's total work force according to county records, they compose 63 percent of employees in corrections and 74 percent of employees in solid waste. These are the jobs nobody really wants -- dealing with society's refuse, human and otherwise. So they are taken by blacks, historically disadvantaged and perpetually segregated from mainstream Dade society. Some county bureaucrats argue that given the number of black employees, it is only appropriate that their department heads should be black as well. During the past fifteen years, for example, corrections has had black directors exclusively.

But as Felton discovered, this also has had the effect of marginalizing his department in the eyes of other administrators. "I'm not saying that it was deliberate or that it was anyone's fault," he says, "but what has happened is that they have created an organization that is viewed as a 'black department,' and it does not have the credibility or the respect that a lot of these other departments have." Such dismissive attitudes, he contends, extend to the directors as well: "Even though you may be eminently qualified, there will be people who will say you only got the position because you are black, and treat you accordingly."

This bureaucratic segregation has also bred resentment within the corrections department, especially among those who are not accustomed to being viewed as minorities in Dade County A namely, the department's Hispanic officers. In the past, corrections was viewed by Hispanics as a stepping stone to a career with Metro-Dade police, but increasingly it is being seen as an end in itself. Today 22 percent of the corrections work force is Hispanic.

Other Hispanics working for Dade County have awakened to their political power over the past five years, but those inside corrections are feeling left out. As a result, the Hispanic Association of Correctional Officers (HACO) has been demanding major changes in the county's hiring procedures. "Corrections doesn't represent the community," asserts Edgar Nieves, HACO's vice president. "We want the department to reflect the people who are paying the bills in the county." That means eventually they want 50 percent of the department's officers to be Hispanic.

Such a goal places them in direct conflict with the Organization of Minority Correctional Officers (OMCO), which is a predominantly black group. (Unlike the Police Benevolent Association, which negotiates contract issues such as salary and benefits for all corrections officers, OMCO and HACO are advocacy groups that push for the rights and political agendas of their dues-paying members.) OMCO's president, Sgt. Walter Clark, says he sympathizes with HACO's desire for equity but will fight it until all other county departments begin making efforts to increase their percentages of black employees. Why, Clark asks, isn't anyone talking about the dearth of blacks in the county's Building and Zoning Department (seventeen percent), or among Metro-Dade police officers (seventeen percent), or within the fire department (fifteen percent)?

Clark has been with corrections for 26 years, dating back to a time when the department was almost entirely Anglo. During the Eighties, when the number of corrections officers jumped from 500 to more than 2000, Clark helped lead the drive to recruit heavily in the black community. In light of the large number of black inmates, he believed it was important that the staff also be predominantly black. "Nobody is going to look out for black folks but black folks," he says. "Nobody is going to march for us but us. Nobody but blacks are going to protest the fact that in 1996 we don't have a black captain in the Metro Police Department. The highest-ranking black woman over there is a lieutenant."

Felton says he tried to work with both groups, each of which claims a membership of about 500 officers. He offered plans to gradually increase the number of Hispanics in the department, but for OMCO any move toward that goal went too far; for HACO it was never enough. The tension between the groups could be measured in the complaints they filed. Since he took command, Felton has received hundreds of letters from OMCO's Walter Clark and from HACO president Cpl. Manuel Aladro outlining every slight, no matter how small. It was not uncommon for Aladro to write Felton three letters in one day. His complaints ranged from the serious to the picayune. For instance, if during a meeting Felton called on a representative from OMCO but failed to acknowledge a HACO officer, the director would get a letter admonishing him. "A lot of these letters from HACO, they are designed to create an atmosphere of discrimination to support a lawsuit," Felton believes. "Every little thing that happens, boom A they charge racial discrimination and they send in a letter. And the OMCO organization does the same thing. You spend all of your time dealing with these groups." Worse, he says, they would go behind his back to meet with commissioners and county administrators, undermining his authority.

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