Virginia's prison grooming policy challenged by six Rastafarian, Muslim inmates

A prison grooming policy is being challenged by six inmates three Rastafarians and three Muslims who claim the rules violate a federal law that protects religious freedom.

Inmate grooming policies have been challenged in courts and found to be constitutional, said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

But Wednesday's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges the state Department of Corrections is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed by Congress three years ago. The act would apply to the Department of Corrections because it receives federal funds, Willis said.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering the department to exempt the plaintiffs from the grooming rules.

The 1999 grooming policy requires that male inmates' "hair will be neatly cut and must be cut above the shirt collar and around the ears."

Beards, goatees and long sideburns are not allowed. Mustaches are permitted, but they must be neatly trimmed, according to the policy.

The department says the policy was enacted to help identify inmates who might change their appearances from mug shots taken when they first enter the system. It is also aimed at controlling their ability to hide contraband in their hair.

Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said there are 23 inmates, out of nearly 31,000, who are not complying with the policy. They are being held in segregation cells, he said.

The department and the Virginia attorney general's office said they could not comment on the lawsuit because officials had not seen the complaint.