Rastafarian inmates approach 10 years in segregation in US prisons for refusing to cut hair

Richmond, USA - Next week will mark a decade that at least six Rastafarian inmates have been held in segregation in Virginia prisons for refusing to cut their hair.

Virginia Department of Corrections instituted a policy on Dec. 15, 1999, that requires men to cut their hair above the shirt collar and bans beards, goatees and long sideburns. The Rastafarian faith urges followers to let their hair grow unbridled.

Department spokesman Larry Traylor confirmed that at least six inmates have been in segregation for 10 years but said a total number was not available.

The policy, which has been upheld by the courts, outlaws hair styles and beards that "could conceal contraband; promote identification with gangs; create a health, hygiene or sanitation hazard; or could significantly compromise the ability to identify an offender." Inmates who refuse to comply will remain in segregation, according to the policy.

Inmates in segregation are isolated in a small cell, allowed out for three showers and five hourlong recreation periods a week. Segregated inmates cannot participate in recreational, educational or rehabilitative treatment programs.

"This has a disturbingly mean-spirited aspect to it," said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "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 challenged the grooming policy in federal court in 2003 but lost on behalf of Rastafarian and Muslim prisoners — to whom growing their hair or facial hair is a fundamental tenant of their religion.

Federal law says prisons can only impede inmates' religious liberties for compelling reasons, like safety. The federal courts agreed that the policy was the least restrictive means necessary to ensure the security, health and safety of the inmates. A federal appeals court upheld the decision in 2007.