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Haircut Controversy Continues In Virginia Prison System

As reported by The Huffington Post, several Rastafarians and other prison inmates have been moved to a high-security prison as official push the prisoners to cut their hair.  The standoff between the prisoners and prison officials boils down to issues of religious belief versus state's grooming policies for prisoners.

This is not a new issue.  In fact, many inmates have reportedly spent more than a decade in isolation for refusing to cut their hair.  The prison puts those refusing haircuts into a program to persuade them to cut their hair.  Virginia corrections department spokesman Larry Traylor told the media that nine of the prisoners chose to go back to segregation rather than cut their hair.

(Image of Rastafarian with dreaded hair - Wikipedia - Photo by Jonathan Stephens - Found on - All Rights Reserved)

While corrections officials said the the program to encourage compliance with prison haircut rules offers inmates more privileges and a change to socialize, the prisoners not wanting to cut their hair aren't buying it.  In letters to the AP, the inmates criticized the program and said it was just segregation by another name.

The prison program encouraging compliance with prison haircut requirements gives graduated privileges to inmates such as time outside cells, money to spend in the commissary and freedom during recreation time if the inmates take classes on anger management and behavioral modification.    Inmates who finish the program "graduate" to the general population, where there are even more privileges.

The prisons involved in the program to encourage resistant inmates to cut their hair is Wallens Ridge State Prison, one of the state's highest security prisons in far southwest Virginia and keen Mountain Correctional Center.

Most of those who had been in segregation for more than a decade are Rastafarians, who believe that it is against God's will to cut their hair.   A group of Rastafarian and Muslim inmates unsuccessfully challenged the policy in federal court in 2003.  About 300 inmates identify as Rastafarians, but only about a dozen are out of compliance with the policy, department officials said.

Virginia is among only about a dozen states that limit the length of inmates' hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow accommodations for those whose religious beliefs prohibit cutting their hair. There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.

The Virginia prison officials report that the hair grooming policy is required to prevent inmates from hiding weapons and drugs in their long hair or beards as well as to keep them from quickly changing their appearance if they escape.  Inmates' heads are shaved when they enter prison.

In response to criticism by the prisoners resisting the policy prison official Harold Clarke, director of the department said "we're not doing it just because we can. It's been done because it raises some security issues and concerns."

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