7th Circuit reinstates inmate’s lawsuit over forced haircut

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A federal appeals panel has reinstated the lawsuit of a former Illinois inmate, calling the forced shaving of his dreadlocks by prison officials “a case of outright arbitrary discrimination.”

The decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals represents a refreshing example of a court taking a closer look at a prison regulation and not giving blind deference to prison officials’ incantations of security.

Omar Grayson, a former inmate at Big Muddy Correctional Center, is a member of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. As part of his religious faith, Grayson did not cut his hair, which grew into dreadlocks.

Prison officials contended that long hair, including dreadlocks, posed a security risk because inmates could hide contraband in their hair or change their appearance and hinder quick prison identification. In other contexts, many courts have accepted such security justifications as reasons for requiring short hair. A prison chaplain also said Grayson’s religion did not absolutely require the growing of his hair.

A federal district court granted prison officials’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit on Jan. 13 reinstated the free-exercise claim in Grayson v. Schuler.

Writing for the panel, Judge Richard Posner pointed out that the prison allowed Rastafarians to grow dreadlocks, creating what he termed a “Rastafarian exception.” To illustrate this point, Posner included a photo of the late, great reggae musician Bob Marley in his opinion.

Long hair could present security problems, Posner said, but he questioned the different treatment of Rastafarian inmates and those of Grayson’s religion. He cited an older case invalidating a prison policy that allowed American Indians, but not Rastafarians, to wear long hair.

“No more can the prison permit Rastafarians to wear long hair and without justification forbid a sincere African Hebrew Israelite of Jerusalem to do so, even if he is more zealous in his religious observances than his religion requires him to be,” the appeals court wrote.

Grayson may or may not ultimately prevail in his lawsuit, which now goes back to the federal district court for trial. Posner noted that “a trial might cast the facts in a different light.”

But Posner’s opinion is a refreshing example of a federal court examining a prison policy to see whether it is irrational or arbitrary.

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