Member Leader Charles Thompson Stands Strong Amid Racist Threats at Pelican Bay State Prison


SEIU Local 1000 member Charles Thompson has been waiting for some good news, and last week he got it. The State Compensation Insurance Fund (SCIF) approved his claim for damages to his health as a result of harassment he’s experienced at Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) over the last seven years. “Not an ounce of me is afraid of the Department of Corrections anymore,” Charles said. “We really don’t have the luxury of beating around the bush; we need to call it what it is. There is a systemic problem at Pelican Bay.”

Charles, who grew up in Detroit and served in the Marines, is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership while working as an elementary school teacher at the PBSP. Currently assigned to Adult Basic Education, he has taught the general population since 2014. In his decades of work as a State employee, he’s never experienced a workplace with the severe issues that plague Pelican Bay. The culture of fear and intimidation that nurses and other staff have made a central call of their organizing efforts has weighed especially heavily on him.

“I have four witnesses that heard management claim they would put me back in the classroom, and then try to find some reason to fire me, because they were upset with my union responsibilities and health requirements,” Thompson confided. These issues mirror those experienced by his fellow healthcare professionals, who have been navigating understaffed and unsafe workplaces for years. “Management comes up with justifications to overwork me, then acts like since they have the right to do it, they can keep the pressure up.”

However, as one of only a handful of Black employees, Thompson has experienced several especially egregious workplace incidents. “One manager vented to her old team, referring to me with racist language and threatening me with violence,” he said. “When I was told the husband of one of the managers would physically threaten me, the prison assured me that he could not get on the grounds, since he didn’t have a gate pass.”

Crescent City, where Pelican Bay is located, is a small, rural, predominantly white community. As one of the few Black residents in the community, these threats against him do not stop at the boundaries of the workplace. “What’s stopping this from spilling over outside the workplace? Myself and the only other African-American employee in the education department are the targets of constant racism,” he said. “Management claims that these incidents weren’t meant to be taken seriously, but I don’t have the luxury of not taking them seriously.”

All of this culminated in a recent incident where Charles was walked off the work site on his birthday after management claimed his mental health made him a threat to other employees. Thompson suspects a different motive. “This is a continuation of the arcane, ableist, and racist system at CDCR that sidelines discussions of mental health in the workplace,” he said, “even as correctional officers, nurses, and other staff are at risk of serious impacts to their mental health, including suicide.” Even worse, these risks are not being mitigated by current approaches. “We get suicide prevention training once a year, but we’re still subject to all the stigmas in the workplace.”

The trauma and stress of dealing with this situation has damaged relationships at work and at home for Charles, and he finally had enough. By turning to Local 1000, he’s been able to not only step up to defend himself in the workplace but to help other employees who are struggling with the same oppressive management. “I pride myself on standing up for members and addressing grievances within minutes of hearing about them,” he said. “Had it not been for the union and legal representation, these racist incidents would have cost me my job. When you call your union rep, you’re getting the best that money can buy.”

The organizing at Pelican Bay, which has primarily focused on the risks posed to nurses by this culture of fear, is also taking up the struggle against a racist culture that employees refuse to accept. “We do not have any reason to be ashamed,” says Charles. “This divide-and-conquer mentality from management has to be stopped, and the press and public must know that we are unified to prevent this from continuing.”

The struggle for respect in the workplace is one that all the staff at Pelican Bay are experiencing on a daily basis. The solutions to these problems are not ready-made; they are being developed by Local 1000 members at PBSP who have united to build a workplace in which they feel safe and helps them provide the best care and services to their patients and students. This is a struggle that union members like Charles know will bear fruit only with the unity and power that comes through an organized workplace. “One day, I’m going to retire,” he said. “But before I do, I want to leave this place trained to protect itself and fight for worker’s rights.”