Splitting hairs: DOC cadet booted from academy over beard

Christopher Santiago examines his trimmed beard. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Christopher Santiago, 30, of Dover, claims he was expelled from the Department of Correction’s Correctional Employee Initial Training (CEIT) academy on Feb. 16 for refusing to shave his face.

As a follower of the Hebrew Israelite movement he said taking a razor to his face would be a violation of his religious convictions.

In explanation, he cites a Bible passage, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 27 that states: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.”

“I feel very strongly about my religious beliefs — they’re more important to me than anything,” he said. “I obey the laws, statutes and commandments of the Bible. There are 613 of them.”

DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell was unwilling to discuss the specific incident in question. But, she said if a cadet is not in compliance with the academy’s policies, that cadet is first given the opportunity to comply within a reasonable amount of time. A cadet who fails to do so will be terminated from the program, she noted.

However, Mr. Santiago said that according to the DOC’s handbook, correctional officers are allowed to have a beard under one inch long. He said he was never informed prior to the start of the program that he was expected to shave his face, only that he was not to have a full, long beard.

An academy introductory letter from the DOC, provided by Mr. Santiago, outlines several academy uniform and other expectations, but says nothing about facial hair.

Despite multiple requests from the Delaware State News, the DOC was unable to produce written proof that maintaining a freshly shaved face was an academy policy.

But, Ms. Gravell insisted that it is a rule that cadets are made aware of “on day one of training.”

Mr. Santiago, who is now seeking legal representation, says he believes he was the victim of religious discrimination.

Opportunity for a career

Originally working in construction and being a driver for Capitol Uniform & Linen, Mr. Santiago said he came across the opportunity to become a correctional officer several months ago at a job fair.

“I enjoyed my previous work, but I was looking for something more stable — a good career so I could support my family,” he said.

Christopher Santiago with his wife Krystal and children Isaiah, 2, Jaelynn, 4 and Kezia, 3 months at their Dover apartment. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The process of applying, going through the necessary background checks and testing took several months, he said. Mr. Santiago recalls that after a physical exam, a DOC employee made mention that he’d have to trim his beard.

“She made a chin stroking motion and said: ‘you know this is going to have to go, right?’” Mr. Santiago said. “I said: ‘Of course.’ At the time I had a big, long beard and I knew I’d have to take it down a bit to be in line with the DOC handbook’s grooming policy.”

To compromise, but stay faithful to his beliefs, he took an electric clipper, turned the setting down to “zero” and buzzed his beard to well below an inch of growth.

“I have it down to stubble basically,” he said.

However, he claims that on the second day of the academy program a lieutenant began shouting at him about his beard. Thinking this may have been “drill sergeant-style” hazing, Mr. Santiago said he ignored it. He become concerned when he was removed from gymnasium activities later in the day by the “head instructor.”

“He wanted to know what the deal with my facial hair was,” said Mr. Santiago. “So I explained to him that it was an important religious conviction of mine to not take a razor to my face. At that point, he told me it was going to be a problem because in the academy they train with fire masks that won’t suction properly over a beard. Not that I didn’t believe him, but I was a bit incredulous, because why would we be required to be clean shaven while we were training, but not when we were on the job?”

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, noted that bearded officers working in the facility don’t have any issues with the equipment.

“During an emergency situation, you have gas masks and self-contained breathing apparatus — basically what firemen use,” he said. “You have to be able to utilize that equipment on the job, but as long as your beard is under an inch, you’re still able to get a good seal on the mask.”

After talking with the head instructor, Mr. Santiago said he was allowed to rejoin his peers in the gym. He was later pulled out again by the lieutenant.

“He took me out into the hallway, and asked what religion I follow,” Mr. Santiago said. “I explained to the best of my ability what my beliefs are and asked if there was some sort of religious waiver or paperwork I could sign attesting to why I couldn’t shave. He just flatly said ‘no.’ They weren’t working with me at all.”

Initially convinced that they’d be able to compromise, Mr. Santiago said he started to feel that the program instructors were judging him and were unwilling to understand his situation.

“I think if I was Jewish, they would have believed me,” he said. “After I explained my convictions, I think they were looking at me like I’m the kind of guy who they work with on the inside every day. Just a guy trying to con them. It seemed like they thought I was bluffing or something and wanted to call me on it. But, these are my beliefs. I don’t cross my God for anyone.”

Shortly afterward, Mr. Santiago found himself in a conference room with a “warden,” he says. Allegedly, the warden pointed out that Mr. Santiago had violated two of the academy’s policies: not having the proper shirt and not being cleanly shaved.

“We were supposed to have solid blue shirts, but my blue shirt had some red lettering on it,” he said. “I understood that and said that I was working diligently to get the proper attire and would have it in the next few days. The warden said that was fine, and he’d work with me on that, but when it came to my facial hair, I’d have to either shave or I’d be done with the department.”

Although hating to do it, Mr. Santiago said he had to leave because he is unwilling to “budge” on his religious beliefs.

“I thought he’d understand that I wasn’t just trying to be rebellious,” he said. “I feel discriminated against because this is life altering for me. I put months into this process and this was going to be a great thing for my family.

“To have it go up in smoke like this is disgusting. I stood up for my beliefs, but I still don’t feel proud of myself because I’m having a hard time feeding my family now. I was going to be on my way to a career, but now I’m out looking for work every day.”

Understaffing persists

Mr. Santiago’s separation from the academy is coming at a time when both the DOC’s “chronic understaffing” has continued to deepen and academy enrollment is dwindling. Mr. Klopp said there are more than 270 correctional officers positions vacant. He said the “real number” is likely much higher counting upcoming retirements and underreported vacancies.

“We have about 16 cadets in the current academy class and around 22 in the one that just started,” Mr. Klopp said. “They’ve actually just lost a few more cadets out of that class as well. We’re calling in 900 overtime shifts per week right now. This time last year that number was around 375 overtime shifts. There is absolutely no way we make it through the summer unless there are some big changes. It’s ridiculous.”

Mr. Klopp has long advocated for a significantly improved compensation package to draw qualified candidates to the positions. The state raised the starting salary of correctional officers to $40,000 at the beginning of last financial year. It’s structured to increase again to $43,000 at the start of FY2019. The change appears to have had little affect on academy enrollment numbers in the short run.

Well aware of the chronic understaffing, Mr. Santiago said being dropped from the program was a loss for him, his family and the department itself.
“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” he said. “I’m an able-bodied, 6-foot-3 200-pound man. I’m a former college athlete, with no criminal record. I’m exactly what they’re looking for. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s really sad.”

Ms. Gravell insisted the DOC’s academy is committed to graduating the highest quality correctional officers it can, despite the staffing shortage. She emphasized that it is essential all cadets adhere to the academy’s rules.

“We aim to graduate professional and responsible officers who will model appropriate behavior to the inmates he or she supervises,” she said. “We may be experiencing a high vacancy rate, but our standards have not been lowered.”

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