Black History No-Show
Note to Tim Ryan: Maybe just stay home next February.
Ryan, Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation chief since 2006, hasn't exactly built a mountain of goodwill with his majority black workforce during his three years in charge of one of the nation's largest prison systems, with a $315 million budget and 7,000 inmates.
One of Ryan's first policies as director, in fact, was to ban 'fros, cornrows, and dreadlocks in the department. The move prompted a wave of complaints that Ryan, who is white, was racist.
It wasn't a new refrain for the California native.
The union representing employees at the Orange County Jail outside Orlando, where Ryan served as chief for four years before moving to Miami-Dade, complained in 2004 that Ryan had hired only three minorities among more than 30 managers in a system with 72 percent African-American and Hispanic workers. John Head, a union lawyer, told the Orlando Sentinel he had filed more than a dozen complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination at the jail.
So what happens when you mix a guy with Ryan's dodgy record of race relations and a Black History Month celebration at the department? A great recipe for a sitcom?
Actually, you get two internal affairs investigations and brand-new allegations of racism.
"In 2009, I'm appalled that this man can treat his employees like this," says Walter Clark, a 65-year-old former corrections officer who lives in Pembroke Pines. Clark runs an advocacy group for black corrections employees, who, by his account, make up at least 65 percent of the department's 2,700 staffers.
In February 2008, Clark says, he received several calls about Ryan's appearance at the department's Black History Month event, where he allegedly made fun of the name Kunta Kinte, the central character in Roots. Clark filed an official complaint with the Miami-Dade Police Department. More than a year later, MDPD officials confirm an internal affairs investigation into the complaint remains open and unresolved.
They can add another Black History Month imbroglio to the file. This past February, according to Clark's complaint, Ryan showed up two hours late and then walked out in the middle of a keynote speech by Circuit Court Judge Orlando Prescott.
Ryan declined repeated requests to comment for this story, citing the open internal affairs investigation.
John Rivera, chief of the police union that represents corrections employees, says the list of problems in Ryan's Department of Corrections is long and disturbing. But Rivera says he doesn't believe racism is one of them.
"That department is completely turned upside down," Rivera says. "It's modern-day dungeon conditions in these jails, and Ryan is not doing anything to make matters better. But I don't think he's about taking care of this guy because he's white or not taking care of this guy because he's black."
Clark disagrees. To the advocate and more than a dozen other corrections officers who gathered last week at a North Miami Denny's to complain about the chief's actions, the Black History Month incidents are just the latest signposts in a troubling career.
"You would think that by now, Tim Ryan would try to change his perception among black officers, to boost morale a little," Clark says. "If he's not a racist, then he's pretty clueless about how he comes across to his employees."
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