Worcester County, MA – A corrections officer was falsely accused of being Nazi after a volunteer for a liberal bail fund visited the Worcester County Jail and House of Corrections and mistook a University of Norwich football tattoo for a neo-Nazi tattoo.
“Went to post two bails at Worcester House of Corrections tonight. You can learn a lot about the COs by the tattoos – for instance this one has a straight up Nazi tattoo. Worcester County Sherrif’s [sic] Office and Massachusetts Department of Correction this is gross,” the volunteer posted on the Massachusetts Bail Fund’s official Facebook page.
The message has since been deleted.
The post went viral quickly and the Worcester County correctional facility was slammed with death threats, prompting them to temporarily shut down their Facebook and Twitter accounts, MassLive reported.
“The person who took the picture didn’t even think to ask, ‘Hey, you have ‘88’ on your arm, what does it say?’ It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Superintendent Dave Tuttle told Worcester Magazine. ”We saw [the tattoo] during academy. We knew he was a Norwich University football player. We knew he was No. 88.”
The person who posted the pictures on Facebook jumped to some unfair conclusions, he said.
“If it was No. 13, is he MS-13?” Superintendent Tuttle asked rhetorically. “If he was 81, does that mean he supports the Hell’s Angels?”
He said that if the accuser has only asked when they saw the “88” tattooed on the correctional officer’s arm, instead of posting pictures about it online with false accusations, the correctional officer would have explained it was a his number of his college football team.
"He's not a Nazi. He doesn't hold those beliefs," Superintendent Tuttle told MassLive in a phone interview Thursday morning. "I guess it's kind of disturbing, too, that someone didn't just take a second to talk to him."
The tattoo featured the number 88 beneath a tattoo of an eagle, which the Norwich University newspaper has explained is a deep-seeded tradition for the members of the Norwich football team, according to MassLive.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) website explained that the eagle clutching a swastika was a symbol of the Nazi party in 1920; however, the eagle on the correctional officer’s arm is just an eagle with its wings spread, not unlike many symbols of the United States.
“We’re not going to discipline someone because he has his college football number on,” Superintendent Tuttle said. “He’s a great worker, a good kid. He’s not a racist. He didn’t even know what it meant when he was playing football.”
The ADL also noted that 88 is a commonly-used hate symbol that could be numerical code for "Heil Hitler," but it's also used for non-extremist reasons, because it's a number.
The correctional officer is proud of his college football career and did not realize the racist implications of the tattoo when he got it, the superintendent said.
Superintendent Tuttle said the correctional officer, who has worked at the jail for about a year, is "one of the most sensitive, kind people working here." His tattoo only became visible when the correctional officers switched to short-sleeved uniforms for summer.
The superintendent said the correctional officer would wear longer sleeves on duty in the future.
But Massachusetts Bail Fund Director of Operations Atara Rich-Shea isn't buying the excuse that a football team's logo with his jersey number isn't racist. She told MassLive she believed covering up the tattoo would minimize the fact that systemic racism still existed in the world.
"That image is not minimizable," Rich-Shea said. "Imagine how it makes families feel when they walk in."
She claimed the font used on the correctional officer’s tattoo was the exact same as what was used for Nazi “88” tattoos honoring Adolf Hitler.
"When you see it, it strikes fear in your heart for a reason because of the legacy of the image," Rich-Shea said.
"I think the idea that there is no intense power differential between the two parties when you walk into the jail is disingenuous," she said.
But Superintendent Tuttle said Rich-Shea’s organization was making claims that are false, and made it clear the correctional officer would continue to work at the facility.
"We hope in the future folks just talk to each other," he said.
Rich-Shea said she saw the controversy surrounding the tattoo as an opportunity for the Worcester County sheriff’s office to address systematic racism by law enforcement.
"I think the better conversation is we need to treat people with respect," Superintendent Tuttle responded. "You can't go out and slander someone without the full facts... Your words and when you say things are like a tube of toothpaste, you squeeze it and you can't put it back in."