HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Connecticut prison guard who was fired in 2021, several years after posting what the state determined to be an anti-Muslim meme on Facebook, has been reinstated to his job.
An arbitrator ruled in February that Anthony Marlak’s termination was an excessive response by the state Department of Correction and reduced the punishment to a 25-day suspension. He also ruled that Marlak must be compensated for lost pay and benefits.
Marlak, who served as a correctional officer for 14 years, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he returned to his job at the Garner Correctional Institution in March.
The Connecticut chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim advocacy organization, had called for Marlak’s firing two years ago. The group cited a meme he posted on Facebook in 2017, which it said depicted five apparently Muslim men hanging from nooses with the caption “Islamic Wind Chimes.”
Marlak, an Air Force veteran, has acknowledged that he posted the meme but said the caption read “ISIS Wind Chimes” and was meant to target the extremist Islamic State group and not Muslims in general.
State investigators were unable to find the post because Marlak deleted that account shortly after the meme was first brought to the state’s attention in 2019.
Marlak’s attorneys have said in legal filings that the picture used in the meme actually showed five men being executed in Iran in 2010 for being homosexual.
In his termination letter, the state told Marlak that, “The type of speech posted threatens the safety of staff and inmates who are Muslim.”
“I honestly love the Muslim religion,” Marlak said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think it’s a very beautiful religion. I was welcomed back by our prison’s imam, who is a great man and asked me how I was doing.”
Farhan Memon, the chairman of CAIR’s state chapter, said the ruling was mostly an indictment of state investigators, who should have been able to find the original social media post. Whether it said “Islamic” or “ISIS” shouldn’t matter, he said, because a lot of Americans conflate the two.
Memon called on the state to fight the ruling.
“It’s quite troublesome that the state would allow someone with Mr. Marlak’s work history and predilection for posting offensive content to be responsible again for the care and welfare of inmates,” he said.
In seeking reinstatement, the union argued in part that the post had been made on a private Facebook page and the termination violated Marlak’s right to free speech.
Arbitrator Michael Ricci said reducing the punishment would “satisfy the aim of discipline in labor law to fix and not punish.”
He ruled the state hadn’t proven the post referred to the Islamic religion, but also said Marlak could be disciplined for speech posted on Facebook.
“This right (to free speech) is not an absolute and must be balanced with the employer’s ability to run an efficient and effective entity,” he wrote.
“On a personal level the arbitrator finds the ISIS image severe, caustic and inflammatory but fairness dictates that the ruling be devoid of personal biases,” he wrote.
The Department of Correction declined to comment on the case, citing its policy “not to comment on issues pertaining to individuals who have pending litigation against the agency.”
Marlak has a federal employment discrimination lawsuit pending against the state, but declined to comment Thursday on the status of that case or how much money he’s seeking, noting he was able to keep his seniority.
“I’m just going to say it was an unfortunate experience,” he said. “Things are starting to come back to normal and I’m really happy now.”