Virginia lifts restrictions on long hair, beards in state prisons

After 11 years and an ACLU lawsuit, the Virginia Department of Corrections confirmed today that it was finally allowing prisoners with long hair or beards out of segregation.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in 2003 on behalf of Muslim and Rastafarian prisoners, claimed that DOC’s policy requiring inmates to be clean shaven and to keep their hair short violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law prohibiting religious discrimination against incarcerated persons. RLUIPA was passed by Congress in 2000.

Even though no federal prison anywhere in the country has such policies, DOC claimed that long-haired inmates are a security risk. In court, DOC was never able to offer evidence that long hair had ever been a threat to prison security, but a Richmond federal district court in 2006 and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 upheld DOC’s policy.

Since then the ACLU and other advocates for prisoners’ rights have repeatedly asked DOC to do away with the policy.

“It should not have taken eleven years,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis, “but DOC is finally realizing that there was never any need to punish these prisoners because of their religious beliefs.”

According to news reports, DOC is moving 31 inmates who have refused to comply with the grooming policies to Keen Mountain Correctional Center. There they will not have all the privileges of other inmates, but will be housed two to a cell, allowed movement within their housing unit, be able to keep more personal property and participate in educational and other program opportunities denied to them while in segregation.

The DOC grooming policy, which was enacted in 1999, requires all inmates to have their hair “cut above the shirt collar and around the ears” and to be no more than one inch in “thickness/depth.” Inmates must be clean shaven, except for mustaches, unless they can obtain a medical exception. The policy contains no religious exemptions, meaning many incarcerated Muslims, Native Americans and Rastafarians are forced to abandon central tenets of their religious beliefs or face segregation.

Edited by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at

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