Prison Guard Mark Williams Has to Choose Between His Job and His Dreadlocks

It’s not totally clear whether Mark’s religious beliefs run very deep or he just wants to keep his cool hairstyle. We called him up to get some answers.

James Williamson

Mark Williams in his uniform

About two weeks ago, a sergeant approached Mark Williams, a correctional officer at the California Institution for Men, in Chino, and told him he had to choose between his dreadlocks and his job. For 14 years Mark has supervised inmates—checked their mail, given them soap, watched them eat breakfast and work out in the Yard, driven them to radiation-treatment centers, and covered their vocation release. All the while, he kept his dreadlocks in a bun, to keep them above his collar.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation manual, “Female employees' hair shall not extend below the bottom of the collar. If the hair is long, it shall be worn in a neat, non-flamboyant style.” But the bun rule only applies to female employees.

Mark is not the only prison guard to be let go over his long dreadlocks. Last fall, Richard Williams, a probation officer in Atlanta, was fired from the Georgia Department of Corrections for not cutting his locks. Solomon Stanley, an ex-prison guard of Visalia, California, currently has a workplace suit in the state court and a civil-rights suit in federal court for being harassed over his dreadlocks and beard.

Mark and these other men all claim to practice Nazarene beliefs, a sect of Christianity that requires its followers to let their hair grow, untamed.

Mark has grown his dreads since 2008. He doesn’t futz with them much, just sprays and conditions them. All he wants is to work and grow his hair. What else could a man ask for?

It’s not totally clear whether Mark’s religious beliefs run very deep or he just wants to keep his cool hairstyle. I called him up to get some answers.

VICE: When were you told that you needed to cut your hair?
Mark Williams: This all started about two years ago. Basically, there has always been talk from friends around the office about my hair, and that some supervisors couldn’t wait to write me up for it.

I typically wear a baseball hat to work, an approved departmental visor. A sergeant was in the office with three other sergeants and a lieutenant, and he asked me, “What’s up with that female hat you’re wearing?” I told him I didn’t appreciate his comment—he was being unprofessional and out of line for confronting me in front of inmates and my peers.

To me, that’s like asking if I’m gay. Why do you need to ask me if it’s a female hat? And from that, I filed for harassment. The issue went away for a while, because management stepped in.

And recently?
Let’s fast-forward to February 13, 2014. I was sitting at my work station when I was approached by a correctional sergeant and lieutenant. They told me that a directive came from the captain’s office—if I did not cut my hair, then I would receive an ETR complaint, which is like a verbal version of a written complaint. That would lead to progressive disciplinary action, which leads to termination.

Why do you think that happened?
Whenever you get a new warden or a new captain—a new supervisor who transfers in from somewhere else—they want to push the line on certain things. This could very well have been a situation where we had a new warden who happened to see me and he didn’t like it.

If there are women who have dreadlocks and I’m a male with dreadlocks, what’s the difference? There was a male officer who was Steve and who wanted to become Stephanie, and they created a restroom to accommodate her.

Who is Stephanie? How did that all go down?
Steve was a correctional peace officer in the late 80s or early 90s—he was a counselor for the inmates. He wanted to become a woman, and he asked for a reasonable accommodation to fit his needs, and they obliged.

Right. Would you say your dreads are connected to your Nazarene religious practice?
Absolutely. It’s what I believe in and what I stand for. It’s my spiritual belief. I feel like I have a purpose to make a difference in the lives of others and spread the love that I have within me. I’m not cutting my hair, and scripture supports that.

Mark's coworkers discussing his hair on Facebook

So have they dismissed you?
No, I haven’t been dismissed. Technically, I’m off due to stress and for creating a discriminatory environment. Now that this has gone public, my coworkers have been discussing it all over social media. I don’t know who is for or against me anymore.

All I ask for is understanding. It’s a matter of perception and consideration. I’ve worked as a correctional officer there for 14 years, and I’ve never been written up. But over the past few years, I’ve been a target of discrimination and harassment. I want to put a stop to it.