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Arbitrator upholds firing of workhouse guard for 'racially charged' comment

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An arbitrator has upheld the firing of a former Hennepin County workhouse guard accused of initiating a "racially charged verbal exchange" with a Somali-American inmate last December.

John McGuiggan, 31, worked at the Adult Corrections Facility in Plymouth for nearly four years until he was terminated March 1.

According to the decision from arbitrator Richard A. Beens posted online recently, McGuiggan asked the inmate, identified only as M.O., "Do you have a rope?"

When M.O. replied that rope is considered contraband in the workhouse, McGuiggan allegedly said, "You must not be used to having one around your neck," and then began to laugh.

Two other inmates, who are both African-American, overheard the comment. They and M.O. each "reported varying levels of discomfort with what they believe McGuiggan said," according to Beens' ruling.  

McGuiggan does not deny that he asked M.O. about a rope. But in an interview with MPR News on Thursday, McGuiggan said his comment had nothing to do with lynching and was simply a joke about unhappiness with his job.

"I've seen people that put fingers up to their head like they're going to shoot their head," McGuiggan said. "That's where I was going with that. I was frustrated with how that place was run."

McGuiggan says he ended the conversation after M.O.'s reply, and McGuiggan insists that he never said anything about a rope being around the inmate's neck. 

Beens wrote that even if the joke about suicide were taken at face value, his decision to uphold McGuiggan's firing would still stand because many workhouse residents have mental health issues, and alluding to suicide in such a manner "is clearly inappropriate" at a penal facility.    

Beens also noted that the "racially charged content of McGuiggan's interaction" with the residents cannot be overlooked. The inmates' "perception that [McGuiggan] was making a reference to our sad history of lynching minorities was reasonable — and shocking."

The Dec. 15 incident was not the first time McGuiggan faced discipline for his workplace comments.

In 2016, managers suspended him for a day for making a sexually derogatory remark about a transgender resident. The following year McGuiggan received a three-day suspension for another inappropriate sexual remark directed at an inmate.

In a statement, the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation says it's pleased that the arbitrator upheld McGuiggan's dismissal, and continual staff training is in place to ensure that "we are an equity-focused, client-centered and employee-driven department, and that incidents such as this are rare."