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Demand Virginia Stop Isolating Religious Inmates

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**UPDATE** November 18, 2010

The Virginia Department of Corrections has announced all inmates being held in segregation solely for their disobedience of grooming policies will be released to a non-segregation unit at Keen Mountain facility. This marks a victory in an 11 year battle. The men who steadfastly stood by their faith and religious beliefs despite persecution should be commended for their tenacity. Although they will not be in general population at the new facility, their unit is not considered segregation and they will be entitled to the privileges of a general population unit. 


What would happen if prisons required you to denounce your faith upon entry? That is essentially what's happening in Virginia to inmates of a variety of religions. When processed in, your head is shaved-whether willingly or by force. If you allow it to grow back, you are sent to isolation. No matter the reason. Currently, 48 inmates are being held in Virginia segregation units because of their refusal to cut their hair, only venturing out of their cell for 3 showers a week and 5 recreational sessions in a cage outside. 

Thirteen of the isolated prisoners practice Rastafari, a religion that holds the hair as sacred and the cutting of it sacrilegious, as fellow writer Te-Ping Chen wrote last month. Some of the inmates, including Kendall Ray Gibson, have dreadlocks that reach the floor when loosened. A religion known for its positivity and closeness with nature, the decade Gibson has spent in isolation has certainly challenged but not weakened his outlook. Having been in custody of the Greensville Correctional Center in 1999 when the hair-cutting rule was instated, Gibson refused to cut his locks from the beginning, starting his decade-long stint in solitary.

The rule doesn't only affect the dreadlocked Rastafarians; certain sects of Judaism, Islam, and Native American spiritualities require the hair to be kept long-- a religious tenet that nearly 50 inmates under the custody of Virginia prisons are willing to go to isolation for. When it comes to the religiously devout, choosing between your soul and whether or not you are part of "general population" on the prison yard is a relatively easy decision, though not one that should have to be made.

In 2000 under the administration of then-president Bill Clinton, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was passed. This act upheld a person's right 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. This is what the Virginia Department of Corrections is clinging to, claiming long hair is a security risk as weapons and other forms of contraband can be hidden within it. Although a federal appeals court sided with the Department in 2008, personal experience tells me an incarcerated individual who is religiously devout is far less likely to hide contraband than another. Working in a prison without a hair grooming policy like this also tells me that the hair is a very seldom-used hiding place and one that is easily searched during routine pat-downs. 

The freedom to practice the religion of your choice does not fall to the wayside the moment you enter prison. However, Virginia and a few other hold-outs seem to think it does. They fail to realize there are ways to balance security with religious freedoms. They also fail to recognize the influence of religion in keeping a prison secure. Those inmates, religiously dedicated to the point of spending time in isolation for their beliefs, are no doubt devout enough to practice the nonviolence and passivity that their respective religions typically hold sacred. Punishing them for their beliefs 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 oppose them keeping the religiously devout in isolation. Join us at in asking them to change their policy in a way that allows the incarcerated to practice their religion without fear of persecution. 

Photo Credit: Valerio Pirrera

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