Va. Rasta Inmates Who Refuse Hair Cuts Sent to High Security

By DENA POTTER
|  Thursday, Mar 3, 2011  |  Updated 8:30 PM EDT
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Va. Rasta Inmates Who Refuse Hair Cuts Sent to High Security

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Several Rastafarians and other inmates in Virginia have been moved to a high-security prison as officials try to persuade them to cut their hair, which many refuse to do because it goes against their religious beliefs.

Many inmates had spent more than a decade in isolation for refusing to cut their hair and then were all first moved to the same prison in November. Their refusal violates the state's grooming policy for prisoners. Some of those recently moved are still working through a program meant to persuade them to cut their hair. Nine chose to go back into segregation, corrections department spokesman Larry Traylor said Thursday.

Corrections officials said the program would give the inmates more privileges and a chance to socialize. In letters to the AP, several inmates criticized it as little more than segregation by another name.

"That's all they have done with this arrangement, removed the word 'segregation' while in actuality we remain segregated and subjected to literally the same policy that seeks to strip us of our faith, our dignity and our will to resist tyrants acting as public servants," said Roberto Chavez, one of the inmates who chose to return to segregation rather than comply with the program.

Traylor said the move last week to Wallens Ridge State Prison, one of the state's highest security prisons in far southwest Virginia, was simply an issue of space. However, inmates who decide to cut their hair and are released back into the general population will face tighter security and fewer privileges there than they would have at their previous home, Keen Mountain Correctional Center. More than 30 inmates had moved to Keen Mountain in November.

He said the program to get inmates to cut their hair has been a success, adding that six inmates agreed to cut their hair and returned to the general population.

The program gives graduated privileges such as time outside cells, money to spend in the commissary and freedom during recreation time if the inmates take classes on anger management and behavioral modification.

Inmates who finish the program "graduate" to the general population, where there are more privileges.

Several inmates refused the program, which required them to double-bunk. They said they had developed odd behaviors to cope with years in isolation and did not want to spend 22 hours a day in such tight quarters.

Most of those who had been in segregation for more than a decade were Rastafarians, who believe that it is against God's will to cut their hair.

Chavez said the program was not educational but more akin to "psychological warfare."

"The whole purpose of us being sent here is to subject us to intensive psychology mumbo jumbo," Chavez said.

A group of Rastafarian and Muslim inmates unsuccessfully challenged the policy in federal court in 2003.

Virginia is among only about a dozen states that limit the length of inmates' hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow accommodations for those whose religious beliefs prohibit cutting their hair. There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.

The department says the grooming policy is needed to prevent inmates from hiding weapons and drugs in their long hair or beards, and also to keep them from quickly changing their appearance if they escape.

About 300 inmates identify as Rastafarians, but only about a dozen are out of compliance with the policy, department officials said. Inmates' heads are shaved when they enter prison.

"We're not doing it just because we can. It's been done because it raises some security issues and concerns," said Harold Clarke, who took over as director of the department in November.

Allen McRae, who changed his name to Ras-Solomon Tafari in prison, also chose to return to isolation. He said the program barred inmates from any educational or religious programming, holding a job, receiving personal property like television and some hygiene items, and face-to-face visits with loved ones.

That only comes if they cut their hair.

"The program is designed in such a way that we can never graduate the program unless we surrender our religious beliefs," he said.

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