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Forcible Cutting of Illinois Prisoner’s Dreadlocks Found Unconstitutional

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an Illinois prison guard violated the First Amendment rights of a prisoner by ordering his dreadlocks to be forcibly shorn. The appellate court further held the guard was not entitled to qualified immunity.

Illinois prison policy allows prisoners “to have any length of hair” they desire so long as it “do[es] not create a security risk.” Harold Schuler, a guard at the Big Muddy Correctional Center (BMCC), ordered prisoner Omar Grayson’s dreadlocks to be cut off on the grounds that they posed a security risk, though he did not explain why.

Grayson, a member of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, complained to the chaplain, who informed him that only prisoners who are Rastafarians are allowed to wear dreadlocks. Grievances on the issue were denied based upon the chaplain’s opinion. Grayson filed a federal lawsuit in 2009, but the district court granted Schuler’s motion for summary judgment and the case was dismissed.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit began its opinion by noting that since Grayson had been released from prison, only his personal-capacity damages claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 remained at issue. Turning to the merits, the appellate court included in its ruling a photo of the late Jamaican musician Bob Marley (a Rastafarian) to show that dreadlocks can attain “a formidable length and density.”

“One can see why prison officials might fear that a shank or other contraband could be concealed in an inmate’s dreadlocks, or why they might want inmates to wear their hair short because inmates with long hair can more easily change their appearance, should they escape, by cutting their hair,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “The case law indicates that a ban on long hair, including dreadlocks, even when motivated by sincere religious belief, would pass constitutional muster.”

However, the Seventh Circuit found that this case involved “outright arbitrary discrimination rather than a failure merely to ‘ac-commodate’ religious rights.” BMCC would be “hard pressed” in defending a rule that only Rastafarians may wear dreadlocks “unless it were certain no other sect, and not even any individual prisoner’s private faith, considers wearing dreadlocks a religious observance....” While Rastafarians could wear dreadlocks at BMCC, Schuler had failed to articulate a security risk if Grayson also was allowed to keep his dreadlocks.

The appellate court found there was a scriptural basis for Grayson’s religious observance of wearing dreadlocks, known as the Nazirite vow. That some members of Grayson’s religion may not observe the vow did not negate his right to that observance, nor did he “forfeit his religious rights merely because he is not scrupulous in his observance; for where would religion be without its backsliders, penitents and prodigal sons?” the Court of Appeals observed. Further,

“[p]rison chaplains may not determine which religious observances are permissible because [they are deemed] orthodox.”

As Schuler did not order Grayson’s dreadlocks to be shorn due to a reasonable belief that Grayson was insincere in his religious observances or because there was a security threat, he was not entitled to qualified immunity. The district court’s summary judgment order was accordingly reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings, where it remains pending. See: Grayson v. Schuler, 666 F.3d 450 (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Grayson v. Schuler