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Virginia Prisoners Challenge Grooming Policy Under RLUIPA

Get in a fight behind bars and in most states, youll serve somewhere between a few days or
months in segregation. Refusal to cut your hair in Virginia and youll be segregated until you

In 1999 the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) adopted a prisoner grooming policy
prohibiting beards and requiring male prisoners to keep their hair trimmed neatly above the

Numerous VDOC prisoners have been segregated since 1999 for refusing to comply with the
grooming policy, on religious grounds. I'm a Rastafarian, said prisoner Elton Williams. My
dreadlocks and beard are fundamental tenets of my religion. VDOC simply doesn't care, and has
locked up Williams and anyone else who refuses to comply with the policy.

Six years [in segregation] & strikes me as an extraordinarily long time for refusing to cut your
hair, said David Fathi, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. Jenni Gainsborough
of Penal Reform International agrees, stating I cant believe this is happening, particularly in
Virginia, which makes such a big deal about religion and how important it is that people be able
to express religious beliefs.

VDOC officials defend the policy, claiming it was designed to prevent prisoners from hiding
contraband or changing their appearance if they escaped. Gainsborough calls their concerns
ridiculous & because women [prisoners] can actually keep their hair long, as if somehow it was
different for women. Fathi also notes that other prison systems around the country allow
prisoners to have their hair at any length so long as its neatly groomed. So the idea that
somehow you cant run a prison without having hair-length restrictions is just not true.

Right now, were the [worst] treated inmates within the prison system, observes Williams,
noting that even death-row prisoners have better accommodations. The segregation has also
caused prisoners mental state to deteriorate and Virginia State Parole Board Chairwoman Helen
Fahey has no specific recollection of an inmate in segregation being granted parole. Prisoner Ira
Madison believes he would have been paroled long ago if not for his segregation, since 1999, for
refusing to comply with the VDOC grooming policy.

Five Rastafarian and Muslim prisoners, represented by the ACLU of Virginia have brought suit,
challenging the policy as violating their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized
Persons Act of 2000 RLUIPA, VDOC officials have the burden of proving that the grooming policy
is the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling government interest. We will report on
developments in the case.

Source: Times Dispatch

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