Class at the jail is in session, and this is no laughing matter

  • Moriarty says this photo was inserted into a training presentation in 2016. Courtesy

  • Amy Moriarty stands by her Peacebow in her Andover home on Tuesday. Moriarty is a Native American corrections officer at the Merrimack County Department of Corrections in Boscawen. She has had enough “jokes” and has filed a discriminatory lawsuit against her employer. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/8/2018 8:13:54 PM

The photo, a slide in a power-point presentation at the Merrimack County jail, was a direct hit, on two fronts.

First, the little boy in the doctored picture, obviously of Native American descent, is seen taking an orange, laser-like vapor right in the face, administered by a cop in a hard hat as he nonchalantly walks past.

An elderly man sits beside the boy eating, spoon in hand, bewildered look on his face, in a grassy field with steer standing in the background and birds flying above.

This was what officials at the jail in Boscawen called a training session, a way to show their guards the proper method for using the spray. And why not add a touch of humor to the class, make it more fun, liven it up, members of the staff figured? Take aim, fire, hit the Native American boy in the face, move on.

That, apparently, was the thinking at the facility, which runs under the umbrella of the Merrimack County Department of Corrections. That’s why it had been inserted at the 11th hour, shortly before the instructor, Amy Moriarty of Andover, stood in front of that class of three guards and went through the course material.

And that other direct hit I mentioned? That would be to Moriarty, herself, a member of the Sioux Tribe. That shot hit her squarely in the gut, knocking the wind from her momentarily and placing her on a legal path that’s been several years in the making. Moriarty didn’t think the pepper spray photo was funny.

Not one bit.

“I get to the last slide and I had never seen this presentation before,” Moriarty, 46, explained to me in her kitchen recently. “One of my students said, ‘Oh my God, I find that offensive,’ and I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought I had done something wrong. Then I turned around and said, ‘Oh my God. This is racial.’ ”

For that, and other documented reasons cited through her nine years employed at the jail, Moriarty has filed a federal discrimination and retaliation lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Merrimack County Department of Corrections.

The pepper spray incident, which happened in May of 2016, was followed by a written test – once Moriarty had returned to the class after complaining to a superior – that included a question asking for “The easiest signal for officers to tell each other they need to have someone sprayed, or are going to spray someone, is to say ...”

The choices: “Here it comes; Watch out; Bombs away; Spray; Geronimo.”

Moriarty didn’t find that last choice funny, either.

She’s still employed at the jail, albeit in an uncomfortable setting. She switched her hours, moving from days to the graveyard shift, specifically to put distance between herself and those she claims are harassing and inappropriately poking fun at her race.

“That was the last straw,” Moriarty told me. “I had to get away from those racist pigs. Different people work (third) shift. They’re more mellow, a good group of people, and that’s why I’m still there.”

As Moriarty sees it, this fight is about more than merely herself. She says she doesn’t care about money or settling out of court. She says she wants her case to go to trial so it will receive maximum publicity. She says she knows her work environment just went from bad to worse.

Didn’t matter. She contacted the Monitor ready to tell her story, indifferent about the controversial nature of the case and the usual roadblocks inserted to keep the news under wraps until it’s reached a conclusion.

These days, when America is pushing back at the racism many see coming from Washington, D.C., Moriarty’s platform was waiting patiently, a microphone standing on a lectern, an attentive audience ready and willing to listen.

“We’re starting to wake up,” Moriarty said. “My goal is to have the public know about this. This gets it out there and helps a lot of people and puts them on the front lines.”

She talks a mile a minute and, her heritage aside for a moment, is proud of the toughness she acquired while growing up a Cubs fan on the South Side of Chicago.

Back in the old neighborhood, colors and ethnicities mixed well, Moriarty said. She said there were two reasons that she rarely talked about being an American Indian. One was that her parents rarely mentioned it.

“Being an Indian did not make a difference, and in the city it doesn’t matter the color of your skin,” Moriarty told me. “We were not taught the culture and we lived life because it was easier to blend into society and that way we could amount to something and we could be more successful that way.”

But, Moriarty said, that line of thinking came with a caveat, an underlying reasoning that had more to do with the threat of prejudice than the hope that race would refer to the human race.

In those days, four decades ago, indigenous people were often embarrassed to reveal their identities. The reservation Indians, Moriarty said, never shied away from their past and were persecuted for it, but the city Indians kept things under wraps and hoped no one would notice.

“(My parents) did not tell me about culture so I would not have to deal with prejudice and racism,” Moriarty told me. ” You didn’t claim you were native and you just blended in. Now we have a voice, but some of our elders still hold their heads down.”

It was an elder, however, a Cherokee named Two Bears, who knocked on Moriarty’s door in Illinois, a sign that the Native community kept tabs on one another and fostered a communal climate. Moriarty began attending Native American Talking Circles and now is well aware of her place on Earth, her duties to “take care of Mother Earth.”

With that in mind, Moriarty said Mother Earth has been good to her. Until, that is, she started working at the jail nine years ago.

She’s afraid she’ll get fired, but she wants to stay because she’s a widow with 10-year-old twins at home and she needs the money. She needs the health insurance and she insists she’s done nothing wrong.

But her suit, scheduled for federal court in June, will shake the facility, and in fact already has.

The paperwork, provided by Moriarty and her attorney, Megan Douglass, documents a series of juvenile behavior, deemed funny and harmless by one side, insulting and cruel by the other.

Some of the charges – losing out on promotions, overtime hours and the teaching of training courses, and deliberately leaving bleach around during her shifts so Moriarty’s allergies will kick in – have been flatly denied in documents issued by the jail’s attorney, Joshua Scott, and given to me by Moriarty.

Scott did not return a phone call. His written introduction, which claims the statute of limitations on most of Moriarty’s complaints has expired, wrote, “The complainant’s charge is replete with stale and previously investigated claims, uncorroborated allegations and gross generalizations.”

Plenty of specific examples from both sides – complaints and responses – were cited.

For example, Officer Nick Emery, referring to Moriarty, allegedly said he was “going to smack that Indian bitch.” Moriarty lodged a complaint, the department acknowledged that fact, and Emery claimed he didn’t remember saying it. He apologized to Moriarty nonetheless.

Another time, Cpl. Dave Dolan supposedly said all Indians are good for is taking his money. Moriarty claims Dolan used the word “Injuns.” The department said it didn’t happen.

Other incidents were included: a guard repeatedly tapping his open hand over his mouth and making a rhythmic chanting sound; freely tossing around labels like squaw and Pocahontas; and references to the war path and a sun dance.

The most recent and visually disturbing claim from the suit was, of course, that picture of the little boy getting hit with pepper spray. The complaint was filed in May of 2016.

Paperwork shows that training supervisor Cpl. Dawn Twining told Moriarty to use a new power point application, which contained the slide. It also says the presentation was approved by Capt. Joseph Costanzo and created by Officer Garrett Jewell.

The department admits that the last slide did, indeed, show a young Native boy getting hit with an orange stream. The photo was immediately cut from the presentation and the department claims Moriarty was okay with that.

Turns out, she was not.

Department of Corrections Superintendent Ross Cunningham returned my call and said “Our comment is I can’t comment. We don’t comment on personnel matters or legal issues.”

Megan Douglass, Moriarty’s attorney, told me, “An image of an officer pepper spraying a child of color in the face clearly does not belong in a presentation of the proper use of pepper spray. Even if the defense is that the image was a joke, think about what that means. It means an officer in authority, the trainer, promoted the idea to his class that causing physical harm to an innocent child of color is laughable.”

Moriarty said the same thing, that her colleagues say they meant it as a joke, they meant no harm, that perhaps Moriarty should be a little less sensitive.

We spoke for nearly two hours. Moriarty could hardly get her words out fast enough. She was passionate. She was charged up. She was not laughing.

“I was outraged,” Moriarty said. “I know it was directed at me. You’re showing that it’s okay to spray a child, let alone a Native child.

“How do you show that in the class?”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)




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