Who Ran This Derogatory Prison Meme Page? A Prison Guard.

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A vulgar Instagram account frequently degraded female prison employees at the Federal Correctional Complex in Lompoc, mocking their bodies after pregnancy. 

Its posts made light of suicide, including one with a “Training Day” meme: “When you cut an inmate down, they have to be your slave in the afterlife.”

Another featured a meme of Jeffrey Epstein with the words “Don’t leave me hanging this Valentine’s Day.” The meme, posted soon after Epstein’s death by suicide in federal custody, was dedicated to the “SHU Crew” — referring to the Special Housing Unit, where incarcerated people are isolated and rates of self-harm are staggering. 

Posts like these were the bread and butter of the “8_and_hitthe_gate” account — its name a reference to an “unofficial motto” among correctional officers. And they were the work of a prison supervisor at FCC Lompoc, on California’s Central Coast, who still works for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

A former facility psychologist, Lindsay Okonowsky, who was targeted by the account, is suing the BOP, alleging it created a hostile work environment that prison officials failed to address. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case today, after a district court ruled against Okonowsky last year. 

The posts were “unquestionably offensive and degrading,” the judge ruled, but the prison lieutenant’s conduct was not “sufficiently severe or pervasive to establish a hostile work environment claim.” 

BOP officials also took sufficient remedial measures, the court ruled, via “a methodical, albeit relatively lengthy, investigative and disciplinary process.” 

With federal prisons overcrowded and chronically understaffed, the case raises questions about how BOP treats its employees, including guards who publicly mock inmates versus medical staff who prioritize inmates’ well-being.

In February 2020, while scrolling on Instagram, Okonowsky found the “8_and_hitthe_gate” account. At the time, Okonowsky worked as a staff psychologist at FCC Lompoc. In a subsequent investigation, then-Lt. Steven Hellman “readily admitted” to being the owner and sole contributor to the account. 

“All posts are satire and aimed to entertain Correctional Officers, not psychologists,” Hellman wrote to investigators after deleting the account. Hellman still works for BOP, the agency confirmed, and is now a deputy captain at a medium-security facility in Victorville, California. The Intercept was unable to reach Hellman directly for comment. 

Okonowsky, who stayed with BOP until July 2022, and her lawyers did not respond to questions about the case. 

Enough of Okonowsky’s co-workers at the prison followed and liked Hellman’s account to make it feel like an “unofficial FCC Lompoc Instagram page,” she said in court filings. The prison’s safety manager told her to get thicker skin. “Sorry, not sorry,” he wrote, according to court filings.

“Sorry, not sorry,” the prison’s safety manager wrote.

Okonowsky reported the Instagram account to her supervisors, telling them it posed significant public relations issues for FCC Lompoc and BOP overall, particularly in the wake of Epstein’s suicide. The human resources manager, who also followed Hellman’s account told Okonowsky the memes were “funny,” according to court filings.

Hours later, Hellman posted a meme of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. The caption: “When you get butthurt by memes.” The hashtag: “#youcantakeadickbutnotajoke?”

Okonowsky submitted multiple reports about the Instagram account, which continued to post memes she interpreted as targeting her, including posts referring to the psychology staff and snitches. “The one staff member that’s a giant cunt, loves inmates, and relentlessly tells on staff,” reads one post highlighted in court filings.

About two months after Okonowsky first raised concerns, the prison warden convened a six-person “threat assessment team” to review her complaints. In an interview with the team, Hellman copped to running the account but denied that the memes were aimed at Okonowsky — “unconvincingly, in the Team’s opinion.”  

“It is unclear precisely what ‘triggered’ Lt. Hellman’s Instagram postings regarding Dr. Okonowsky,” the team wrote in a memo summarizing their findings for the warden. “The Team suspects that they stem from Hellman’s negative attitude towards the Psychology Department in general — not solely towards Dr. Okonowsky.”

The team concluded that Hellman’s actions fell short of “workplace violence” under BOP policy but still constituted bullying and potentially other misconduct. “Jokes on social media regarding inmate suicides are highly inappropriate and reflect poorly upon the BOP — especially when coming from supervisory-level employees who work in SHU,” the team wrote. 

Hellman is now in a more senior position than he was in 2020.

Hellman was referred to internal affairs for a misconduct investigation and issued a cease-and-desist ordering him to stop posting material that violated agency policy. BOP declined to provide information about the outcome of that internal affairs investigation but confirmed that Hellman is now in a more senior position than he was in 2020.

For nearly a month after the order, Hellman continued posting sexist material, some of which was aimed at the FCC Lompoc psychology department, according to Okonowsky’s court briefs, before closing the “8_and_hitthe_gate” account in May 2020. 

Okonowsky sued BOP in federal court in 2021. This week, the 9th Circuit will consider whether her hostile work environment claims over Hellman’s Instagram account should go to a jury.

The post Who Ran This Derogatory Prison Meme Page? A Prison Guard. appeared first on The Intercept.

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