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Seventh Circuit Upholds Removal of Prisoner’s Dreadlocks

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that an Illinois prisoner’s religious rights were not violated when prison officials required him to cut off his dreadlocks to be transported to a court hearing.

Peter A. Lewis, incarcerated at the Dixon Correctional Center, is a member of a religious sect called the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Consistent with the requirements of his faith, Lewis took the voluntary Nazirith vow, which, among other things, committed him to not cut his hair. He had previously filed suit against prison officials, claiming that they infringed his religious freedom by refusing to let him have visits unless he agreed to cut his hair. A 2003 settlement in that lawsuit allowed Lewis to have visitors if he permitted guards to search his dreadlocks for contraband before and after each visit.

Prison officials gave Lewis a choice in January 2004, when he was scheduled to appear in federal court. He could either get a haircut or go to segregation as punishment for eluding (by refusing a haircut) his scheduled court hearing. Lewis chose the haircut, then claimed prison officials knew his court date had been postponed, depriving them of a security concern that justified cutting his hair.

A dispute existed as to what prison officials knew about the court date, and when. It was undisputed, however, that Lewis was transported to court shortly after the originally-scheduled court hearing. The Seventh Circuit wrote, “it is obvious that transporting prisoners and placing them in courtrooms presents significant security concerns, warranting protective measures.”

The appellate court held that prison officials’ discretion relative to security-related matters extends to a determination that a particular prisoner’s dreadlocks are too thick or dense to be readily searchable on a certain occasion, such as a visit to federal court. There was no evidence that Lewis was treated differently than other similarly situated prisoners, nor that the prison’s security concerns were outweighed by his interest in engaging in a sincere religious observance.

The district court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendant prison officials was therefore affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied Lewis’ petition for writ of certiorari on October 7, 2013. See: Lewis v. Sternes, 712 F.3d 1083 (7th Cir. 2013), cert. denied.

The Seventh Circuit had previously held that an Illinois prison guard violated a prisoner’s First Amendment rights by ordering his dreadlocks to be forcibly cut, and that the guard was not entitled to qualified immunity. However, the appellate court noted that the facts in that case involved “outright arbitrary discrimination rather than a failure merely to ‘accommodate’ religious rights.” [See: PLN, April 2013, p.44].

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