Steven Johnson has worked as an officer with the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for eleven years. He's an exemplary employee and member of the honor guard who prides himself on never having missed a day of work.
But last month Johnson ran into some trouble.
He hadn't slept with an inmate, like Homestead prison guard Gustavo Coronado, who was arrested this past March for the crime. Nor was he alleged to have taken bribes from a drug trafficker like Ofcr. Shynita Townsend, arrested in January. And he wasn't on duty when serial rapist Reynaldo Rapalo escaped from the Turner Guilford Knight (TGK) Correctional Center via a rope of tied bed sheets in 2005.
No, Johnson's offense was his braids.
On February 22 new rules took effect in the troubled corrections department that smell of Sixties hogwash. "Braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, plaits, extensions, ponytail(s) or facsimile, of any length, are prohibited," reads a rule that guards say was issued by recently installed Corrections Director Timothy Ryan.
"With all the major issues we have had since Rapalo escaped, the most important problem is hair?" marvels Cory Barney, president of the Organization of Minority Corrections Officers.
There's more: "An employee shall not wear any jewelry on more than one tooth; e.g. grills, fangs, etc.," states the policy. If an employee has more than one gold tooth, he or she has a year to get rid of it.
Corrections employees complained to Ryan, who sent out a March 2 memo saying the policy would be reassessed. But in mid-March Capt. Marvin Ramsey told Johnson to do something about his hair. Coworkers Sheldon Fanther and Leonard Hardley were also ordered to the barber.
The three officers, who all work at TGK, were upset. Johnson says his braids, which ended above his collar, helped cover up a bald spot. Hardley said his had taken more than a year to grow out. Fanther, who spent $60 every two weeks to have his dreads touched up, was heartbroken. "I put a lot of time and money into my hair," he laments. "I made an effort to make my dreads neat."
For Hardley and Johnson, who each have served more than a decade with corrections, it was not the first time the issue had surfaced. Four years ago their superiors filed a complaint about their hair. To hedge their bets back then, they found what seemed like a suitable solution: Afro wigs. Hardley bought his at a beauty supply store in North Miami Beach for $19.99. Johnson acquired his from a place on U.S. 1 for $25.
Then the Police Benevolent Association determined they were compliant with the rules, and the pair stashed the hairpieces.
After the March reprimand it was time to pull them out of the closet. "The Afro was kind of big so we went to the barber shop to get them down to normal," recalls Hardley.
Fanther, who has only been in corrections for three years, purchased a wig made of human hair for $40.
All three wore their purchases to work. "Everybody was like, 'Is that your hair?'" remembers Fanther.
"They were nice, low-cut wigs," adds Johnson.
Their superiors saw the move as insolent. On March 15 the three wigged men were called into the shift commander's office, which Johnson explains is in full view of arriving inmates and the police officers who book them.
Their superior didn't bother to close the blinds or shut the doors, Johnson says. "He said, 'I'm not going back and forth. I want the wig off. Now.'" The men said nothing. The captain lost his patience. He took their badges and ordered them on administrative leave. The men were given until March 23 to comply.
On March 19 Barney brought the corrections employees to a meeting of the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP. The three men made T-shirts for the event that read, "I'm not an inmate, I'm a professional." Barney wore one emblazoned with a photograph of the new department director and the words "Tim Ryan's Racist Uniform Policy." He ascended the podium and announced his belief that, "Ninety-five percent of the new policy is clearly directed toward black men." Then he added, referring to the clause about gold teeth: "You hired me like this ten years ago, and later you tell me not only do I have to get rid of them but I have to pay for it myself?"
Barney, by the way, has closely cropped hair and uniformly natural teeth.
Johnson mournfully chopped off his braids two days before the deadline and returned to work. Because of his thinning hair, he says he had to shave it close and now has to cut it every three days. "I wasn't just sad, I was depressed," he sighs.
Hardley and Fanther went to the barber. "I didn't want to pull the race card," Fanther explains. "I just felt it was wrong."
Ryan has asked that employees submit their complaints. "Meanwhile, correctional employees have a responsibility to comply with the policy," says corrections spokesperson Janelle Hall.
Over a recent lunch at corrections headquarters, Barney, a slight man with firm convictions, suggested the department should deal with more significant issues. Indeed after Rapalo's escape, an investigation revealed understaffing, poorly maintained facilities, and major flaws in security and communication.
Then there's the inmate who recently died of salmonella poisoning. And police officers have balked at hours-long waits to get arrestees booked. A smoke evacuation system renovation ordered by building inspectors has gone millions of dollars over budget and has yet to be completed.
So why, Johnson asks, would his superiors go after their most dedicated employees, the veterans at TGK? "You've got some of the best workers [there]," he says. "We're so short-staffed. Every time they need people for overtime we're the ones they call."
Even if the new employee appearance code is changed to be more forgiving to braids and dreads, it will be too late for Johnson. "My braids were neat," he sighs. "We weren't looking like thugs or bums. I am very sharp in my uniform."
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