Lawyers Argue Against Prison Haircuts that Violate Religious Beliefs

May 19, 2006

Source: Times-Dispatch

On May 19, 2006 Times-Dispatch reported, "Lawyers argued before a federal judge yesterday whether Virginia's prison haircut rules for men violate the religious rights of Muslim and Rastafarian inmates. U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams is considering motions for judgment in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on behalf of several inmates. It challenges the Virginia Department of Corrections grooming policy for male prisoners. Williams did not make a ruling yesterday. The policy forbids beards and goatees, though it allows mustaches. It says hair can be no more than 1 inch in 'thickness/depth' and must be 'cut above the shirt collar and around the ears.' It forbids braids, plaits, dreadlocks, cornrows, ponytails, buns and Mohawks. According to court papers, those who refuse to comply for any reason are placed in segregation, may be reclassified to a higher security level and earn good-conduct credit at a slower rate. Under a separate policy, female inmates are permitted shoulder-length hair and may wear ponytails or braids. The policy for men has an exemption for a medical condition that is aggravated by shaving, but whiskers must be trimmed to ¼ inch. The ACLU claims the policy violates a federal law passed in 2000 to protect the rights of people to practice their religious faiths despite being incarcerated. The law is called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. According to the ACLU pleadings, three plaintiffs who are Muslims say that the prophet Muhammad commanded the faithful to let their beards grow. Two other plaintiffs who are Rastafarians believe a fundamental tenet of their religion says they may not cut their hair or beards."