Ralph Bunch got his final walking papers last month.
For 10 years, the veteran corrections employee has been trying to deal with the troubled kids in the King County juvenile detention facility. But in the two years since he joined three other detention employees in a racial discrimination suit against his employer, he says he's been a marked man at work. In mid-July, after six months on administrative leave on a claim that he screened a violent video for juvenile male detainees, the county fired him.
But Bunch isn't going away quietly. His racial discrimination suit against the county goes to trial this October, and he's appealing his firing to the county personnel board. He's confident he'll win, based on contradicting witness statements, an inadequate investigation, his main accuser's failure to pass a lie detector test, and several witnesses in his favor who were never interviewed by detention center officials.
That legal drama is just the latest in a series of costly lawsuits and settlements that have plagued King County's juvenile detention division over the past six years. County executive Ron Sims says recent court activity is simply a by-product of his dictate to clean up the troubled system. "When I have unprofessional staff, I have the mistreatment of young people," he says. "I wanted that place cleaned up, and I still want it cleaned up."
Bunch responds that the latest attempt to fire him came after he filed suit against the county, not before.
The county has been making major shake-ups in the management. They've recently resorted to downsizing—moving court and probation services to other departments and putting the juvenile lockup on East Alder Street under the jurisdiction of the adult jail system. Sims says he got tired of contempt citations for inadequate work by the department's probation workers, so he transferred them and their duties to the courts. "I said, 'They work for you now, and if they can't get it to work, fire them,'" he says. But not all of the 200 juvenile detention employees (who supervise a similar number of young detainees) agree that the targeted employees are the ones who deserve to be shown the door.
The majority of the 120 to 200 young people incarcerated daily in the facility range from age 14 to age 17, although youths up to age 21 can be serving time there, if still under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts. The average stay is 11 days, the maximum 30 days (not including children charged with serious crimes who are awaiting trial).
There's no dispute that the juvenile jail has bred a culture of favoritism, cronyism, and discrimination. "The situation [in juvenile detention] is such that employees on all sides fear retaliation from management, reprisals from line supervisors, and retribution from co-workers if they risk complaining," wrote Bryon Warfield-Graham, then-supervisor of the county's Affirmative Action Workforce Diversity Unit, in a 1993 investigative report. He adds that employee interviews found "almost unanimous criticism of the management of [juvenile detention] and its ability to manage personnel, conduct investigations, award discipline, and respond to complaints."
This isn't old news to some employees, who say little has changed, despite four different bosses since 1994. Five, if you count the temporary replacement for current juvenile detention manager Nate Caldwell. He's in Florida, awaiting trial on federal charges that he and three colleagues at a former job conspired to use an escape as an excuse to fire a black jail lieutenant (see accompanying story).
Sims says he's on a mission to fix problems in juvenile detention that go back not just several years, but several administrations. He says a trusted senior staffer who served as acting director of juvenile detention described the atmosphere in the department as "being like Kosovo. Every executive's been down this path, and they've all turned their backs," he says. "My goal is to clean up that institution so that kids can go through safely."
LIKE MOST PERSONNEL matters, Bunch's case is complicated, and arguments can be made supporting both sides. In short, his bosses have a paper trail of various disciplinary actions against him; he says he's been targeted for years. Bunch says his run of trouble coincides with his decision to testify in support of four co-workers in a 1995 civil suit against detention union officials. The timing may be coincidental, but Bunch was twice suspended in August 1995, shortly after his name appeared on a witness list for the trial of Local 2084 and then-union president David Winger. Bunch got suspended a third time in late November of that year, about two weeks after a King County Superior Court jury awarded four female detention workers a total of $800,000 (including an $80,000 personal assessment against Winger) and $146,134 in attorneys' fees.
Fellow employees describe Bunch as having a good rapport with detainees. He's no hulking goon, but is solidly built and carries himself with physical confidence, a must in any corrections facility. Especially for Bunch: Colleagues say that, since filing his suit in May 1999, he's been targeted by managers who routinely assign the most troublesome detainees to his care. "A lot of those kids are seriously combative and have assault issues," says one detention employee. Last April, Bunch had his jaw broken by a detainee while trying to break up a fistfight in his unit.
He says he sued the county after simply getting tired of the constant scrutiny and the excessive and unfair discipline imposed by managers. When Bunch first filed the suit, he had three co-plaintiffs, all African-American men and longtime juvenile detention employees with similar claims.
King County recently arranged undisclosed settlements with two of the men, Jeff Morphis and Dwight Preston. Preston did not return a call from Seattle Weekly; Morphis declined comment. The third, Don Fielder, quit his job and dropped participation in the suit.
Bunch's latest trouble stems from the claim that he showed a group of male detainees a violent video entitled Banned From Television. Bunch flatly denies the charge. And the investigative report shows that none of Bunch's co-workers were interviewed—only the detainees provided evidence. The stories conflicted in several places (one youth denied the story and accused his unit mates of trying to settle a score with Bunch), and a polygraph examination of Bunch's main accuser proved inconclusive.
In his defense, Bunch gathered written statements from fellow employees that note that the unit Bunch was supervising at the time doesn't have a VCR and that he has never brought a personal VCR to work. Nor was his name included on the sign-out sheet for a TV and VCR owned by the department. Despite this evidence, his dismissal was upheld.
But Bunch is no stranger to standing up for his rights. A 12-year employee of the state prison system, he and another officer were fired in 1983, sued, and won reinstatement and six-figure judgments in court. "Watch as this develops," he says of his latest battle. "I'll beat this, and I'll be back again."
ALONE, BUNCH'S CASE could be dismissed as the gripes of one malcontent employee. But he's not the only employee to make such claims.
When Karen Rispoli was hired in 1995 to work as a juvenile detention employee, she walked into a tense situation. Manager David Winger, her supervisor, was mired in the court case over his performance as union president. Rispoli says Winger and other managers focused on her as a potential troublemaker. It didn't help that her r鳵m頩ncluded work as a private investigator, she recalls. "There was a lot of speculation about me being a threat." Despite the intimidating atmosphere, Rispoli says she tried to establish herself as a conscientious employee. "I was brand new," she says. "I didn't know who was suing who."
Shortly before her probationary period was over, Rispoli was fired. She sued over her dismissal and accepted a $260,000 settlement from King County in 1997.
But the harassment didn't stop at the detention center door. Rispoli says she was fired as a Metro bus driver last year in part because her boss told her he had "heard a lot of negative things" about her from people in youth detention. A union source confirms her account. Rispoli was later reinstated at Metro, after she signed away her rights to sue over the incident.
Like Bunch, Rispoli had joined others testifying in the 1995 suit against Winger. And, like many current and former juvenile detention employees, she says certain workers were targeted for discipline and dismissal.
Rispoli, who spent much of her own teenage years in foster homes and juvenile institutions, says the most frustrating element of her experience was that she had hoped to fulfill a longtime goal of working with troubled kids. "It was my dream to go back and teach them leadership skills," she says. "I bought into the illusion."
Other employees agree that positive work to help detainees makes little difference in one's status in the department. Preston had organized an anger management program in the detention center and put many hours into working with kids, but was still targeted after he joined Bunch's lawsuit against the county, say co-workers.
Although most lawsuits by detention employees are framed legally in terms of racial or sexual discrimination, disgruntled juvenile division workers say the racial component of the situation is significant but not overriding. Bunch is black and Rispoli is white. Detention manager Caldwell is black, as is one of his two assistant detention managers. Several other minorities serve as managers or lead workers. But county documents filed in one court case show that black males have borne the lion's share of disciplinary actions in the juvenile division. In 1994, 1995, and 1996, more black males were suspended or terminated than all other employee categories combined. In 1997, seven black males and eight other employees faced disciplinary action.
Some current and former juvenile division staffers describe the situation as a particularly noxious parody of high school, where advancement and even continued employment means kissing up to the ruling clique of managers. The majority of those in the "out" group are black males, who are written up more often and receive harsher punishments than whites for similar offenses.
"It's sort of like a good-old-boys system down there," says Don Fielder, one of Bunch's former co-plaintiffs. "Either they like you or dislike you."
Worse yet, others assert, management's obsession with staff discipline means that caring for the troubled kids housed in the Alder Street juvenile facility takes a lower priority. "People are so concerned about disciplining people that they're not watching the store," says a veteran staff member who requested anonymity. "It's like the most important thing down there is to get people to fall in line."
JAIL OFFICIALS ARGUE that things have improved and will continue to get better at the juvenile facility. Steve Thompson, the county's Director of Adult and Juvenile Detention, says the system has responded to concerns of unfair discipline by creating a dual review process, with all investigations, findings, and disciplinary decisions screened both by an attorney from the prosecutor's office and by department officials. "It's a nice check and balance on a renegade manager," he says.
But the facility's troubles have proven resistant to management fixes. Arthur Wallenstein, Thompson's predecessor as director of the adult jail, says he thought Caldwell was a great choice to run the "troubled" juvenile facility. However, some jail employees were unimpressed by their new manager's criminal past—as a teenage gang member, Caldwell had been convicted of manslaughter and served five years in jail. Likewise, workers have noted that the charges against Caldwell, that he and other detention officials conspired to use an escape investigation to target employees unrelated to the incident, sound eerily familiar.
They've also noted that former union president Winger (who is white) has risen quickly in the ranks despite the civil discrimination verdict (the county also paid the four workers a $390,000 settlement). Sims argues that Winger wasn't held personally responsible for the discrimination claim but took the blame as a member of the union's executive board. But court documents contradict the county executive's memory of the case: Winger was never removed as a party from the case and was held personally responsible for 10 percent of the damage award.
Winger was also personally implicated in the incident that triggered the suit: A female detention worker testified that Winger refused to accept her well-documented sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor. She said that Winger at first turned her away, then denied her union representation in pursuing the charges—while at the same time personally taking charge of the supervisor's defense.
Sims isn't the only reformer at work: Employees recently split from Local 2084 and created a new, independent juvenile detention workers union. Employees say the old union was too closely tied with management and they resented paying higher dues to pay off the discrimination judgment against Winger.
"What I want out of this is a healthy environment," says one longtime employee. "I don't want any gain out of this for myself.
"I just want to see the corruption done away with."