The stateʼs governor released the results of an investigation into a photo and said he had approved the termination of the roughly 30 correctional
trainees who appeared in it.
By Jacey Fortin
Dec. 31, 2019, 12:59 p.m. ET
About 30 correctional officer trainees in West Virginia will be terminated after a photograph captured them raising their hands in what appeared to be a Nazi salute,
according to Gov. Jim Justice, who said in a statement that he had approved a recommendation to fire the trainees.
The statement on Monday followed an investigation into the episode, which found that the trainees had made the gesture multiple times in the classroom and that an
instructor had told students to make the gesture in the photograph.
The students were part of a basic training class for the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The words “Hail Byrd!” appeared at the top of the
photograph; a spokesman for the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said the phrase was a reference to one of the trainees’ instructors.
West Virginia Will Fire
Corrections Cadets for Doing Nazi
The report identified the instructor by her last name, Byrd. According to a training schedule obtained by West Virginia Public Broadcasting this month, an instructor
named Karrie Byrd taught trainees on various subjects including use of force, correctional documentation and cultural diversity.
The military affairs department said this month that one cadet in the basic training class and two correctional academy trainers — one of whom took the picture —
had been fired, and that an investigation was underway.
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The cadets in the photo were state employees and had been suspended without pay.
Betsy Jividen, the commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, presented the findings of the investigation to Jeff Sandy, the
secretary of the state’s military affairs department, on Friday.
In a letter to Governor Justice, Mr. Sandy recommended the termination of one more staff member, the suspension of four instructors who had failed to report the
photograph, and the “termination of all cadets participating in the openhanded salute and the closed fist salute in the class photograph.”
In his statement on Monday, Mr. Justice said he had approved those recommendations.
A basic training class from the West Virginia Division of Corrections and
Rehabilitation. The photo was provided to The New York Times with the employees’
faces already blurred. West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety
“This incident was completely unacceptable,” he said. “Now, we must continue to move forward and work diligently to make sure nothing like this ever happens
The report said that multiple students and instructors were aware that the gesture was inappropriate, “but the investigation did not reveal any overt motivation or
intent that this was a discriminatory act towards any racial, religious, or ethnic group.”
The president of the union that represents West Virginia correctional officers did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The hand gesture performed by the students was used in Nazi Germany to salute Adolf Hitler, and it endures as a symbol of anti-Semitism and racism. The report
said that while trainees began doing the gesture during the second or third week of their academy session in what some called a “sign of respect” for Ms. Byrd,
several recognized the gesture’s “historical implications” and refused to participate with the rest of the class.
“Others who knew the implications of the gesture felt pressure to fit in and joined in,” the report said. “Some of these class members voiced their concerns to
classmates. Those voicing concerns were assured by those comfortable with the gesture, that since there was no racial motivation on their part, the gesture was
The report said that two other instructors saw students use the gesture and reprimanded the class. “One of these instructors was rebuked by a student who stood up
in defense of himself and the other cadets making the gesture and said, ʻLook at me I am black, and I am doing it,’” the report said. “This student was recognized as
one of the informal class leaders.”
Ms. Byrd was aware of objections to the salute, but she did not stop the behavior and instead “encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture,” the
report said, adding that she told the trainees to make the gesture for their class photo, which was to be distributed in a graduation packet.
“Ten of the cadets reported they did not make the gesture until Byrd told them to,” the report added. “These cadets stated that they only did it at that time due to
fear of not graduating for disobeying the direction of an instructor. Seven of those cadets, in order to comply with Byrd’s direction but not make the gesture, held up
a closed fist.”
The class photograph was sent to a secretary at the academy, who asked Ms. Byrd what the students were doing in the picture.
“Byrd responded with, ʻLook there is nothing wrong with it, we have people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and every one of them are participating,’”
the report said. “The secretary stated that Byrd directed her to caption the picture ʻHail Byrd.’ The secretary remarked that Byrd told her, ʻThat’s why they do that,
because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.’”
The secretary and two other instructors told Capt. Annette Daniels-Watts — who has also been listed as an instructor for trainees — that the photo was offensive, the
report said. It added that Captain Daniels-Watts said the photo was “horrible.”
“Despite her own feelings of the picture, as well as those shared by the secretary and the two instructors, Daniels-Watts never addressed Byrd, had the pictures
pulled from the packets, or reported the situation to her supervisor,” it added.
Ms. Byrd and Captain Daniels-Watts are no longer employed by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the military
affairs department. He added that the trainees are Civil Service employees who have rights under state law that allow them to challenge the terminations.
In his letter to the governor, Mr. Sandy acknowledged that some of the trainees had been uncomfortable with the hand gesture. “Nonetheless, their conduct, without
question, has also resulted in the far-reaching and harmful perceptions that are the antithesis of the values we strive to attain,” he said.