“Rasta inmates spend decade in isolation for dreadlock hair”
That’s the headline of this recent USA Today report on an ongoing conflict over a Virginia Department of Corrections policy that bars inmates from growing long hair. Inmates who don’t comply are kept in solitary confinement. Here’s an excerpt on the legal context:
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 Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs, native Americans and others whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving or cutting their hair.
There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that constitutional protections, like the right to practice religion, do not end at the prison gates. Congress has said institutions can restrict religious liberties only for compelling reasons, like security, but the policies must be the least restrictive means to accomplish that.
Still, inmates have rarely been successful in challenging prison grooming policies.
A native American inmate spent a year in his cell and lost other privileges before a federal appeals court ruled in 2005 that the California prison system’s ban on long hair violated his religious freedom.
In a 2002 case, a group of Rastafarian and Muslim federal inmates who were housed in Virginia prisons challenged the grooming policy and a federal court ordered the Bureau of Prisons to transfer them to other facilities that did not have such policies. The court also required the federal prison system to evaluate inmates’ religious beliefs and refrain from sending them to Virginia or other states with burdensome grooming policies.
But in the case filed by the Virginia state prisoners, a federal appeals court ruled in 2008 that the Department of Corrections’ argument that inmates could hide weapons and other contraband in long hair or easily change their appearance upon escape was compelling enough reason to require trimmed hair.