48 Va. Inmates in Segregation Over Grooming Policy

Dena Potter, Yahoo! News, June 30, 2010

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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