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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Shorn Dreadlocks Won’t Leave Prison Liable

(CN) - Illinois prison officials did not violate the religious rights of an inmate by making him cut his dreadlocks before a court appearance, the 7th Circuit ruled Thursday.

Peter Lewis, 57, is serving 20 years in Dixon Correction Center related to a residential burglary conviction from 1995. He belongs to a religious sect known as the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, which believes that black people today are descendants of Jews from the Old Testament.

One of the optional conditions of the Nazarite code that Lewis took as part of this creed requires that he not cut his hair, but Illinois has strict grooming policies with regard to inmate hairstyles that create a security risk. Dreadlocks, for example, are thought to provide an effective hiding place for contraband.

Lewis came into conflict with the policy in January 2004 when he was scheduled to go to court for a civil case he had filed. The prison said Lewis could either cut his hair or face segregation as punishment for eluding his court-ordered appearance.

Lewis chose the haircut and filed suit, claiming violations of his equal-protection and religious rights under the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and a parallel state law.

Dreadlocks were also an issue in an earlier lawsuit that Lewis filed, claiming that the prison forbid him from having visitors unless he consented to have his hair cut.

In a 2003 settlement of that suit, the parties agreed that Lewis could receive visitors as long as he allowed prison staff to search his dreadlocks for contraband before and after any visit.

As to the court-date shearing, Lewis claimed that the prison took aim at his dreadlocks even though it knew that his court date had been postponed.

A federal judge in Rockford granted the defendants summary judgment, and the 7th Circuit affirmed Thursday.

The Chicago-based federal appeals court distinguished the Lewis case from a different dreadlocks dispute involving former inmate Big Muddy Correctional Center inmate Omar Grayson.

"Although his [Lewis'] motivation for not wanting to cut his hair is religious, he has no evidence that the prison made him cut his hair because of ignorance of his religion or its observances, as in the Grayson case," Judge Richard Posner wrote for a three-judge panel. "He complains that his prison's policy on dreadlocks is arbitrary and unjustifiable, and he also seeks an 'accommodation' - that is, he wants the prison to make an exception for him from the policy (even if the policy is valid as applied to prisoners who have no religious claim) because of his religion." (Parentheses and emphasis in original.)

In Grayson, which Posner also wrote, the 7th Circuit blasted the apparent bias in the Big Muddy policy that allows only Rastafarian inmates to keep dreadlocks.

Posner questioned Thursday why the contraband fears at Dixon lead it to classify all dreadlocks as a security risk.

"Both Dixon and Big Muddy are Illinois medium-security prisons; why would they have different policies about dreadlocks?" the ruling states. "But there may be a reason. Dixon (our plaintiff's prison) has a more liberal visiting policy than Big Muddy. Prisoners at Big Muddy, if they're not in segregation, may receive visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., but are limited to six visits per month and no more than two of the visits are allowed on weekends or holidays. In contrast, Dixon inmates may receive visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., with no monthly, weekend, or holiday limitations."

Evidence also shows that Dixon inmates are allowed to spend most of the day out of their cells, "whereas it seems that inmates at Big Muddy are allowed out of their cells for only about three hours a day," the ruling states.

"Dixon thus seems to be the more 'liberal' prison," Posner wrote. "This may make its staff more concerned than Big Muddy's staff is with the possibility of contraband being brought into or carried out of the prison; and a greater concern would justify tighter controls over hairstyle."

Posner noted that the tight schedule of Lewis' court date made it unfeasible for the prison to get around a haircut with an hours-long process involving conditioner, degreasing shampoo and thorough combing. Despite the strain that searching an inmate's hair may put on prison staff, Dixon also has not tried to maintain a general ban on dreadlocks, the court explained.

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