Corrections officer's lawsuit: I left Jackson prison over Islamophobic harassment
A former corrections officer filed a federal lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections Tuesday claiming he was unfairly targeted while working at the Jackson facility because of his ethnicity and religion.
Hizam Yehia, an Arab American man from Jackson, told The Detroit News he was harassed by his managers, sergeants, lieutenants and fellow officers at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.
Yehia said the harassment began immediately after he joined the department in March 2015.
The lawsuit claims that Yehia was subjected to a racially hostile work environment, being called a terrorist by coworkers, told by coworkers that they hoped he wasn't "wearing his bomb vest," told he married his first cousin, asked how his "bomb-making business" was doing, and asked if he rode his camel to work.
Yehia is Muslim and chooses not to eat pork. His coworkers would intentionally hide pork in his food, the lawsuit claims.
Attorney Jonathan Marko said Yehia was "constantly subjected to a systemic culture of racism" and was the only worker of Middle Eastern descent at the facility.
Yehia, 27, was diagnosed with severe anxiety and had frequent panic attacks, forcing him to resign, Marko said.
"He was singled out and he couldn't take that working environment anymore," Marko said. "This devastated him and his family. Not only did he leave his job, he left the state and moved to Virginia. He wants a fresh start."
Yehia filed the suit after exhausting his remedies with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after they closed the matter on April 22. Yehia said he doesn't want anyone to be mistreated when committing to serve their government.
"I was born in Detroit and having grown up in Michigan, I thought, 'why am I going through this?' People were telling me I totally had an accent when I didn't, that I sold bomb parts on Amazon and worked with ISIS," he said.
Yehia said that when he was given his government-issued weapon, others made comments he shouldn't be given one to prevent a shooting spree, according to the lawsuit.
The Michigan Department of Corrections declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Marko said he deals with cases involving Middle Easterners who have been harassed in their government workplace too often.
"It's a shockingly common scenario and I have a few similar cases now and one going to trial in Flint next week," he said. "This is a systemic problem, but there should be zero tolerance for this type of stuff. How is it in 2019 we could have even one case of Detroit-born citizen devoted to working for our government and be subjected to such heinous comments? It's appalling."
Yehia said it wasn't an easy decision to leave his hometown.
"I moved for a better opportunity and hopefully, more diversity," Yehia said. "I want a better future for myself and my family. I'm looking for more of a higher federal job and will hopefully find that close to D.C."