Bob Marley will be turning in his grave when next week marks a decade since at least eight Rastafarian inmates in the US were held in segregation for refusing to cut their hair.
Members of the Afro-Caribbean religious group say the Virginia Department of Corrections grooming policy of Dec. 15, 1999 violates their religion, which forbids the cutting of hair and stresses black culture and identity.
The policy requires men to cut their hair above the shirt collar and bans beards, goatees and long sideburns because they “could conceal contraband; promote identification with gangs; create a health, hygiene or sanitation hazard; or could significantly compromise the ability to identify an offender.”
Federal law says prisons can only impede on religious liberties for compelling reasons, like safety, but American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Kent Willis says this bald treatment has nothing to do with security.
“This has a disturbingly mean-spirited aspect to it,” he said. “This is not about corrections. This is not about security, but it’s about punishment. In this instance, people are being punished for their religious beliefs.”
The ACLU of Virginia in 2003 challenged the grooming policy in federal court on behalf of Rastafarian and Muslim prisoners, to whom unhindered hair growth is a fundamental part of religious practice. They lost, and a federal appeals court more recently upheld the decision in 2007.
“We were deeply disappointed in the outcome, because we knew that the sincerest believers would be those who would be punished most severely,” Willis said.
Inmates in segregation are isolated in a small cell and cannot participate in recreational, educational or rehabilitative treatment programs. They are allowed out for three showers and five hour-long recreation periods a week.
Not many men enjoy the prospect of hair loss, but most would agree that a simple haircut is a small price to pay for greater freedom. Rastafarians however cite biblical commandments, such as in Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they not shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh,” and a passage in Numbers stating that “no razors may be used on his head … he must let the hair on his head grow long.” Many associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey and some followers vow never to cut their hair.
Although the federal courts have spoken on the issue, Willis said he hoped “the message of how painfully absurd this policy is” will prompt the legislature to demand it be changed.