- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

RICHMOND | 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 hairstyles 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.

“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, such as 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.

“We were deeply disappointed in the outcome, because we knew that the sincerest believers would be those who would be punished most severely,” Mr. Willis said.

When the lawsuit was filed, there were 23 inmates being held in segregation cells for refusing to comply.

Mr. Traylor said inmates’ segregation status is reviewed every 45 days.

“If he is ready to comply with policy then he is removed from segregation as soon as he comes into compliance,” Mr. Traylor said.

Although the federal courts have spoken on the issue, Mr. Willis said he hoped “the message of how painfully absurd this policy is” will prompt either Gov. Tim Kaine to order the policy changed before leaving office in January or the legislature to demand it be changed.

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.

In a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which first reported the story on Monday, inmate Allen McRae, also known as Ras-Solomon Tafari, wrote about how his normal day in segregation is “a repetitive cycle of stress and frustration.”

“I can’t speak for all the others’ experience, but for me, being in seg. for as long as I have been … has created a deep-rooted bitterness, frustration, and depression,” wrote McRae, 32, who is serving a 20-year sentence for cocaine possession.

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