Alleging years of intense harassment and retaliation at New Folsom prison, Muslim correctional officer Elsiddig Elhindi has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state Corrections Department.
The lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was filed on Elhindi’s behalf Dec. 31 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It alleges that Elhindi, an immigrant from Sudan married to a U.S. citizen, endured numerous anti-Muslim slurs and taunts from co-workers at California State Prison, Sacramento, from early 2006 until the fall of 2014.
At a press conference at Sacramento CAIR offices Monday with his attorney, Brice Hamack, Elhindi, 56, said his complaints were at first ignored, and later prompted retaliation. Elhindi also filed charges with the department’s internal Equal Employment Opportunity Division and reported the harassment to supervisors numerous times, but alleged they were dismissive.
“The stress level is unbelievable – it amounts to emotional torture,” Elhindi said. He alleged that his co-workers tried to incite inmates against him, putting his life at risk.
“It never stopped,” he said.
Elhindi, an observant Muslim, prays five times a day, and his religion required him to pray two or three times daily at work, depending upon his shift, according to the lawsuit. Each prayer takes approximately two minutes to complete.
The suit alleges that once his co-workers realized he was Muslim, one co-worker asked: “Is your vest like ours, or is it a suicide bombing vest?” Another allegedly said: “Here is Elhindi, we need bomb-sniffing dogs.”
According to the suit, he was repeatedly called a terrorist, had his religion mocked, and was told by a supervisor that many of his co-workers “hate Islam and hate Muslims.”
When the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in Elhindi’s favor last February, finding “there is reasonable cause to believe” the CDCR was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act due to harassment based on religion, race and national origin, Elhindi alleged co-workers regularly referred to him as a “rat” and a “snitch” and spread rumors that he “would rather pray than provide proper safety coverage of other guards on duty,” according to the suit.
“I ended up working by myself and am constantly worried about my safety with all the name-calling other inmates starting doing,” Elhindi said at the press conference. “Several times I would work in units where it requires two officers to escort one inmate, and there was no one around.
“My accent was joked about, my color was joked about, and the use of the N word was unbelievable,” he said. “It’s scary.”
Elhindi said he was asked to retire several times, but declined. “I have a family to support and have invested 27 years of my life into state service and cannot just walk away,” he said.
CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. There are 115,089 inmates at 34 state prisons, and staffing is extremely diverse, Callison said, adding, “We expect every employee to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The department employs 26,410 correctional officers, according to Bill Sessa, spokesman for the agency.
Elhindi, who left Sudan at age 19, said he moved to Sacramento in 1983. He went to work at the California Department of Education’s School for the Deaf in Fremont in 1987, then trained to become a correctional officer and started his career with CDCR in 2006.
He said he has been promoted to sergeant, and since September has worked at California State Prison, Solano, where he has not experienced harassment. Still, he said, he felt the issue of his past treatment needed to be addressed.
“I think it’s a systemic issue,” he said. “There are other Muslim officers that have complained of similar treatment, but the majority are scared to report it because you start getting bad assignments and rumors that are unfounded.”
The suit asks the federal court to hold a jury trial and seeks special damages covering wages and benefits, general damages of pain, suffering, mental injury and emotional distress, past and future, reasonable legal fees and protection against future harassment. It also asks that the Corrections Department increase anti-discriminatory training for supervisors and employees.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.