A number of West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees have been suspended after a photo surfaced that shows more than 30 participants in a basic training class performing a Nazi salute, reports WCHS-TV.
The photo shows roughly 30 employees of the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety making the racist gesture, which was used to hail German dictator Adolf Hitler while he oversaw the slaughter of millions of Jews during World War II.
The photo displays the text “HAIL BYRD!” ― a phrase similar to the one used to salute Hitler, reports HuffPost. Some local news outlets speculated the text may be a reference to the state’s former U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd (D), who was a member of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan but later denounced it.
The photo identifies the group as members of Basic Training Class #18, a group of correctional officers that trained from Oct. 21 through Nov. 27. The Charleston Gazette-Mail and other outlets published the photo after obtaining it through a public records request, though DMAPS blurred the faces of the people in the photo.
BREAKING: Photo released that has led to numerous DOC employees being suspended pic.twitter.com/Lee98ldVl2
— Leslie Rubin (@LeslieRubinWCHS) December 5, 2019
Jeff Sandy, the cabinet secretary for DMAPS, sent a letter on Wednesday titled “Conduct Unbecoming by Members of DCR” addressing all of its employees.
“I have seen the photo of Basic Training Class Number 18. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” Sandy wrote. “It is distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive and completely inappropriate.”
Sandy said the photo undermines the high standards that have been set for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“It betrays the professionalism I have seen time and time again displayed and practiced by our brave correctional employees,” Sandy’s letter said.
“In the meantime, Commissioner Jividen has directed that all copies be destroyed, sent to this office, or otherwise taken out of circulation to keep its harm from spreading,” Sandy said.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has been briefed on the photo and released a statement just before noon on Thursday.
“I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class #18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said. “I have directed Secretary Jeff Sandy of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety 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.”
House Assistant Majority Leader Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, condemned the picture in a statement, saying she was “shocked beyond words at this outrageous photo.”
“As someone who has worked to build bridges with our local Jewish community, I know how harmful and offensive horrible displays like this can be, and my heart breaks for my friends who will be deeply affected by this,” Kessinger said.
One of the Jewish members of the state’s legislature, Delegate Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha) said the people in the photo should not be correctional officers, a job which places them in a position of immense power over others.
“At best this is an extreme lack of judgement for people who have a lot of power over other people’s lives,” he told the Gazette-Mail. “At worst, it’s just blatant anti-Semitism, and it’s disgusting.”