Tell Virginia to Stop Persecuting Religious Prisoners With Long Hair

What would happen if prisons required you to denounce your faith upon entry?

That’s what’s happening in Virginia, where people first entering prison get their heads shaved — whether willingly or by force. No exceptions for people whose religions ban such styles. If you allow your hair to grow back, you are sent into isolation as punishment.

Currently, 48 inmates are being held in Virginia segregation units for refusing to keep their hair shorn. They’re only allowed to venture out of their cells for three showers a week and five recreational sessions in a cage outside.

Thirteen of the isolated prisoners practice Rastafarian, a religion that holds the hair sacred, and views its cutting as sacrilegious. Some of the prisoners — including Kendall Ray Gibson — have dreadlocks that reach the floor when loosened. Gibson has been at the Greensville Correctional Center since 1999, when the hair-cutting rule was instated, and refused from the start to violate his religion and cut his locks. He’s been punished by over a decade in solitary confinement ever since.

The rule doesn’t only affect the dreadlocked Rastafarians; certain sects of Judaism, Islam, and Native American spiritualities also require hair to be kept long. When it comes to the religiously devout, choosing between your soul and whether you can join the others on the prison yard isn’t a decision prisoners should have to make.

Only a handful of prisons still have hair-grooming policies like Virginia’s, mostly in southern states. I’ve worked within the walls of a maximum security prison myself, and know that even among such prisons, several make exceptions for religious practices that ban the cutting of hair.

Punishing the religiously devout by locking them away in segregation is draconian and unfair. Tell Virginia leaders to change the current policy and allow people of all faiths to practice their religion without punishment.

Back in 2000, Congress passed an act upholding the right of a person to practice the religion of their choice, even when incarcerated. It allows the state to limit the inmate’s religious freedoms only if they can show the limitation is necessary for prison security.

That’s the argument the Virginia Department of Corrections is clinging to. Officials claim that long hair is a security risk, because weapons and other forms of contraband can be hidden within it. Although a federal appeals court sided with the state in 2008, having worked in a prison without a similar hair grooming policy, I know that hair is a seldom-used hiding place — and what’s more, one that is easily searched during routine pat-downs.

Freedom to practice religion doesn’t — or shouldn’t — disappear the moment you enter prison. There are ways to balance security with religious freedoms, and Virginia prisons should make the effort. Continuing to punish Rastafarians and other believers for their faith is akin to keeping the Bible from Christians in fear they would conceal contraband within its pages. It’s unnecessary and unreasonable.

Show the state of Virginia that you don’t support keeping the religiously devout in isolation. Join us at Change.org in asking lawmakers to allow the incarcerated to practice their religion without fear of persecution.

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