Rastafarian Inmates Waiting in Vain to Get Out of the Hole

6 inmates kept in segregation 10 years over their hair

By Matthew Stabley
|  Monday, Dec 7, 2009  |  Updated 4:12 PM EDT
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Rastas Wait in Vain to Get Out of the Hole

Blacqbook, Shutterstock

You could smuggle a cell phone in that hair.

Roll over, Bob Marley, and tell Selassie the news: Next week will mark a decade that at least eight Rastafarian inmates have been held in segregation in Virginia prisons for refusing to cut their hair, the Associated Press reported.

Virginia Department of Corrections policy requires men to cut their hair above the shirt collar. The Rastafarian faith urges followers to let their hair and beards grow unbridled.

A department spokesman confirmed that at least six inmates have been in segregation since Dec. 15, 1999, but said a total number was not available.

The policy is intended to help identify inmates who could alter their images to appear different from their mug shots and to prevent them from hiding contraband, like a shiv or one of those big, fat spliffs they smoke as a religious rite. The dreadlocks have many meanings for Rastas, including serving as a badge of an individual's dedication to the movement and to help Rastafarians spot each other.

Eric Balaban, an ACLU lawyer, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he'd never heard of another policy like it in the United states.

"That really is remarkable -- based solely upon the continued violation of grooming policy -- to put somebody in the hole for 10 years," he said.

"Why would you use up your valuable space in segregation for these guys?"

The ACLU of Virginia challenged the grooming policy in federal court in 2003 on the grounds that it violated religious rights of Muslims and Rastafarians. The ACLU lost.

One of the inmates, Kendall Gibson, said he likely won't be released until 2023 because segregation keeps him from good behavior time.

"I'm not going to bow," he told the Times-Dispatch.

Since they are in segregation, the inmates couldn't be interviewed, but six wrote to the Times-Dispatch. They said they originally were in segregation at the same prison but are now spread around the state.

Evan Hopkins, an author and former inmate who knew Ivan Sparks -- a Rasta who died in segregation at age 59 on Oct. 21 -- told the Times-Dispatch he plans to ask Gov. Tim Kaine to help the inmates.

Federal law says prisons can only impede on religious liberties for compelling reasons, like safety, the AP reported.

In August, a South Carolina circuit court ruled that correctional officers violated a Rastafarian inmate's rights by shaving his head to comply with prison grooming policy, according to FindLaw legal news blog Courtside.
 

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