Nearly 50 Virginia prisoners are being held in perpetual isolation because they refuse to cut their hair, several for religious reasons.
The Associated Press reported in May that 10 Rastafarian inmates had been in segregation for more than 10 years for refusing to comply with the state’s grooming policy, which calls for hair to be kept above the shirt collar and bans beards. The Department of Corrections confirmed the status of those inmates then, but wouldn’t reveal how many others were being segregated for not cutting their hair.
Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker ordered the department to put together a list of all inmates who were being held in isolation because of the policy, department spokesman Larry Traylor said. Traylor refused to provide the list to the AP, but divulged the numbers.
The review found that 48 inmates were being held in segregation for refusing to follow the policy. Of those, 13 are Rastafarians, who view growing their hair unbridled as a tenet of their religion.
Traylor said he did not know the remaining inmates’ religions or reasons for disregarding the policy, nor did he know how long those others had been in segregation. The policy went into effect Dec. 15, 1999.
Taylor Thornley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bob McDonnell and Decker, would not comment on whether the review means officials are considering changing the policy.
“She was merely doing due diligence in her role as Secretary of Public Safety,” Thornley said of Decker, who refused to be interviewed.
Traylor said the corrections department was not contemplating a change. If the prisoners choose to cut their hair, they can come out of segregation, he said.
In addition to the Rastafarians, it is likely that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Native Americans and others whose religious beliefs call for them not to cut their hair account for many of the others being segregated, said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
“It really is appalling to think that nearly 50 individuals are in the cruel confines of indefinite segregation solely because DOC had a hunch that they might be a security risk,” Willis said.
“It is time for DOC to make the right decision and eliminate this policy,” he said.
The department says the policy is needed to prevent inmates from hiding contraband, such as weapons, in their long hair or beards, and also to keep them from quickly changing their appearance if they escape.
Virginia is among only about a dozen states, mostly in the South, that limit the length of inmates’ hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow religious accommodations for those whose religious beliefs prohibit cutting their hair. There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has said rights, such as that to practice religion, do not end at the prison gates, inmates have rarely been successful fighting such policies in court.
In 2003, the ACLU helped a group of Rastafarian and Muslim prisoners challenge the Virginia policy, but it was unsuccessful.
Willis said the policy runs counter to well-accepted ideals that inmates who are religious are generally less likely to be a security risk.
Traylor said a review of prison records shows that an additional 291 inmates — out of nearly 33,000 systemwide — claim to be Rastafarian but are complying with the grooming policy.
Upon entering prison, inmates’ hair is shaved. If he or she grows it back, the prisoner could face segregation.
Rastafarians like Kendall Gibson — who is serving 47 years on robbery, abduction and gun charges — have lived in segregation for more than a decade rather than lose their hair.
Those who have been fighting from outside prison hope the new numbers will convince those of other religious denominations to join the effort.
“Any denomination being held in this fashion, to me it’s unconscionable,” said Corey Fauconier, a Richmond Rastafarian and singer who wrote a song about those being held in segregation.
Fauconier wrote several letters for McDonnell and former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, but neither responded. Department of Corrections officials wrote to him defending the policy but offered Fauconier the chance to visit the Rastafarian inmates on holy days.
“I’m not expecting the world to change overnight,” Fauconier said. “I’m saying why can’t we all sit down at a table and try to work through it together so that the situation becomes a little bit better, because the way it is now is not acceptable.”
Source: The Associated Press.