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Virginia Prisoners Held in Segregation Over 10 Years for Violating DOC Grooming Policy

A number of prisoners in Virginia have been held in segregation for more than a decade because they refuse to cut their hair or beards on religious grounds.

Since December 1999, the Virginia Department of Corrections’ grooming policy has required male prisoners to keep their hair cut above the shirt collar, as well as around the ears. It also prohibits beards and goatees.

The stated reasons for the policy are related to security and health concerns. For example, the policy is intended to prevent prisoners from drastically altering their appearances, thereby making them easier to identify should they escape, and to prevent prisoners from hiding contraband in their hair. Female prisoners, however, are allowed to have shoulder-length hair.

A number of Virginia prisoners, followers of the Rastafarian religion, have been kept in segregation for violating the grooming policy. They contend the policy infringes on their religious rights since Rastafarians let their hair grow in dreadlocks and do not cut their beards.

Eric Balaban, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called it “... remarkable, based solely upon the continued violation of grooming policy, to put somebody in the hole for 10 years.”

It is unclear exactly how many prisoners are being held in segregation for refusing to comply with the DOC’s grooming policy. Elton L. Williams, a prisoner at the Greensville Correctional Center, forwarded a list of 10 people, including himself, who had been in segregation since 1999. Another prisoner, Ivan Sparks, died in October 2009 after spending nearly a decade in isolation.

And there may be many more. Six prisoners recently contacted the Richmond Times-Dispatch. They claimed there were originally many prisoners at the same facility in segregation for refusing to comply with the grooming policy who were later moved to other prisons around the state. The Associated Press reported in June 2011 that 48 prisoners were in segregation for refusing to follow the grooming policy.

Prisoners being held in isolation are confined alone, in small cells. They are allowed out for only three showers and five hour-long recreation periods per week. They are permitted one non-contact visit per week, plus two phone calls per month. They are not allowed to participate in any recreational, educational or treatment programs, nor can they mix with the general population. Further, they do not earn any good-time credits, effectively lengthening their sentences.

Williams argued that prisoners who refuse to cut their hair are being punished more severely than serial killers or prisoners who commit assaults while they are imprisoned, both of whom may eventually re-enter the general population. “Not us, though,” said Williams. “Solitary confinement has become our doom.”

The Virginia DOC’s grooming policy has been challenged, unsuccessfully, in federal court. With representation by the ACLU, prisoners affected by the policy, including Rastafarians and Muslims, filed suit in 2003 arguing that the grooming policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.37].

Following a bench trial the district court entered judgment in favor of the DOC on August 16, 2006, which was affirmed by the 4th Circuit in an unpublished opinion in January 2008. “In sum, given the record before us and the requirement that courts give due deference to the expertise and experience of prison officials, we affirm the district court’s judgment,” the Court of Appeals wrote. See: McRae v. Johnson, 261 Fed.Appx. 554 (4th Cir. 2008).

In November 2010 the Virginia DOC released 31 Rastafarian prisoners from segregation and transferred them to the Keen Mountain Correctional Center, to “better manage and utilize critical bed space.”

“While there remains a need for consequences when offenders choose not to adhere to [DOC] policy, it was determined that offenders whose only offense is failure to comply with the grooming policy should be housed and managed separately from the general population but did not require housing in segregation,” said DOC spokesman Larry Traylor.

However, by January 2011 ten of those prisoners had been returned to segregation at Wallens Ridge State Prison, a maximum-security facility, because they refused to take part in a program that would require them to cut their hair and shave their beards.

A number of other state prison systems have similar grooming policies, including South Carolina, where a legal challenge also was unsuccessful. [See: PLN, Feb. 2011, p.42]. It is worth noting that the only state prison systems that impose such grooming rules on male prisoners tend to be the states of the former confederacy.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

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Related legal case

McRae v. Johnson