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Federal District Court Holds Ohio Prison Cannot Cut Rastafarian Prisoner’s Hair

by Matt Clarke

On May 14, 2018, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Patricia A. Gaughan ruled the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) could not enforce a grooming policy that required a Rastafarian prisoner to cut his dreadlocks.

The district court declared the grooming policy, as applied to the prisoner, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and enjoined prison officials from enforcing the policy against him.

Deon S. Glenn, 29, an Ohio state prisoner, filed a federal civil rights action alleging the ODRC’s enforcement of its grooming policy violated his rights under RLUIPA. Glenn is serving a lengthy sentence for murder and attempted murder at the Trumbull Correctional Institution, and is considered a “level 3” security risk with a prison disciplinary record of 39 rule infractions, including one for having a weapon and seven for contraband.

Glenn has been a practicing Rastafarian since 2012. One tenet of his faith is that he allow his hair to grow without being cut. His deadlocks extended about three inches from his scalp and were the thickness of a pencil at the time of the court ruling.

Ohio Administrative Code § 5120-9-25(D) prohibits ODRC prisoners from wearing certain hairstyles, including dreadlocks. Neither the policy nor a prison memorandum on hair care dated November 30, 2014 provided a religious exception for dreadlocks.

Starting in September 2016, Glenn was informed he must cut his dreadlocks, which he had been wearing without incident. He received disciplinary infractions and was placed in solitary confinement until he agreed to cut them. Then he sued the ODRC.

The district court held, based on Glenn’s sworn affidavit, that he had a sincerely held belief that the Rastafarian religion requires dreadlocks. As a matter of law, the ODRC failed to demonstrate that its prohibition on dreadlocks was the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest. The court rejected the ODRC’s belated attempt to redefine its policy as being only against unsearchable hair, because the policy reads as a blanket prohibition against deadlocks without mentioning searchability.

Judge Gaughan noted this case was virtually indistinguishable from Ware v. Louisiana Department of Corrections, 866 F.3d 263 (5th Cir. 2017) [PLN, April 2018, p.25], in which the appellate court determined that a grooming policy prohibiting dreadlocks was not the least restrictive means of achieving its stated objective. In Ware, the Fifth Circuit noted that 39 other corrections agencies, including the federal Bureau of Prisons, either permitted dreadlocks or had a religious exception to allow them. The Ware defendants failed to prove they were in a unique position compared to those other jurisdictions.

Similarly, Ohio prison officials failed to show their no-dreadlocks policy was justified. The district court therefore granted Glenn’s motion for summary judgment, declared the grooming policy violated RLUIPA as applied to Glenn and enjoined the ODRC from enforcing the policy against him.

Glenn was represented by three interns at the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Reserve University’s School of Law who were supervised by law professor Avidan Cover. On August 7, 2018, the district court awarded $18,516 in attorney fees to Glenn’s legal team. See: Glenn v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 4:18-cv-00436-PAG. 

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Related legal case

Glenn v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction