JARRATT, Va. – Kendall Gibson would seem to be one of Virginia’s most dangerous prisoners.
For more than 10 years he has lived in segregation at the Greensville Correctional Center, spending at least 23 hours every day in a cell the size of a gas station bathroom. In a temporary home for the worst of the worst — inmates too violent or disruptive to live among the rest of society’s outcasts — he has been a permanent fixture.
He is there, he says, not for his crimes but for a crime he will not commit — a crime against God.
The only thing imposing about Gibson is his long black dreadlocks, resting on the front of his shoulders so they won’t drag the ground as he shuffles along in his orange jumpsuit.
It is his hair — winding locks he considers a measure of his Rastafarian faith — that makes him a threat, according to Virginia Department of Corrections Operating Procedure No. 864.1.
The rule took effect on Dec. 15, 1999. Inmates had two choices: cut their hair no longer than their collars and shave their beards, or be placed in administrative segregation.
In the beginning, Gibson was among as many as 40 inmates who opted for confinement over cutting. By 2003, when a handful of the inmates filed a federal lawsuit against the department over their detention, 23 remained in segregation.
The lawsuit failed. Some cracked under the pressure of constant isolation with no visits from loved ones, educational or religious programs or commissary. Some went home.
Today, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many remain in isolation. The Department of Corrections won’t volunteer the information, but has confirmed 10 names given to The Associated Press by a group of Rastafarian inmates.
Not everyone can handle it, Gibson says. For those weak in mind or spirit, the walls can easily close in on them.
“People always ask how I can smile in a place so negative,” he says. The Rastafarian God, Jah, “is my answer. Without Jah in my life I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
Like most of the Rastafarians in segregation, Gibson didn’t become a believer until after he entered prison. He was 18 and had a long time to do, sentenced to 47 years on robbery, abduction and gun charges.
Gibson had always loved the “peaceful vibes of Rastafari livity,” but like many he knew the movement by the hair, the music and the ganja. In prison, he met others who taught him the spiritual aspects. He took on the name Ras-Talawa Tafari, a strong leader who inspires awe.
Rastafari draws from the Bible, mixing in African and Caribbean cultural influences. It is considered by many more of a way of life or movement than a religion. They preach unity with god, nature and each other, but are loosely organized and followers are free to worship with other congregations.
Rastafarians regard Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who was known as Ras Tafari before he rose to power in 1930, as the second coming of Christ. They believe Jah inhabits them so there it no real need for a church. They smoke marijuana as a sacrament and adhere to a vegetarian diet.
While some view growing their hair as optional, most Rastafarians see it as demanded by the Nazarite Vow in the Bible (Numbers 6:5), “There shall no razor come upon his head.”
Gibson never entertained the thought of cutting his hair when the policy was announced or during the 10 long years since. “Jah didn’t lead I to feel that this plight was burden enough to bow,” he says.
A person must be willing to stand up and fight for a worthy cause, he says, echoing Rastafarian messenger Bob Marley’s rhythmic chant “Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights.”
Gibson longs to hear such reggae music. A clear analog radio that picks up about nine stations is his only luxury in his small cell, but the island music doesn’t get much air time in these parts.
His days are long but compact. Five days a week, he is led in restraints to an outside cage that resembles a dog kennel for an hour of recreation. Otherwise, he only leaves his 8-by-10 cell for three, 20-minute showers each week.
His cinderblock walls are off-white or gray, depending on the way the light hits them. The cell is freshly painted, drowning out the smell of his Dove soap resting on his one-piece sink-toilet unit.
If he stands on top of his mounted stainless steel bed Gibson can peak out the window, where he can see inmates in the general population recreation yard in the distance. He prefers to stare into the woods just beyond the razor-wife fence. On occasion he spies a deer grazing in the field.
The segregation unit has 16 cells, and although the inmates can’t see each other they often talk. Gibson is amazed at what he calls their pure confusion and senseless babbling — obsession with the lives of movie stars and rappers and sports figures.
And then there are the other Rastafarians. “These people may have my physical body confined, but I refuse to surrender my mind and spirit,” says Allen McRae, also known as Ras-Solomon Tafari, who is serving 20 years for cocaine possession.
Elton Williams, who is behind bars for armed robbery, gets the question all the time from inmates pulling stints in segregation. Wouldn’t it be easier just to cut his hair?
His answer: “My very soul depends on the decisions I make.”
Williams, 31, likens it to a Christian who is told that, for security reasons, he must denounce Christ. Williams is set to leave prison in December; he could cut his hair until then, he says, but what would happen to his soul?
Then there was Ivan Sparks, a 59-year-old Rastafarian elder who refused to cut his hair and was sent into segregation at Buckingham Correctional Center.
He never left it — except to die at Virginian Commonwealth University Medical Center last fall, of prostate cancer.