NYTimes Explores a Judge Posner Opinion Regarding Dreadlocks in Prison

A Forced Prison Haircut Brings Up Questions About Freedom of Religion
James Warren
The New York Times
January 21, 2012

Since members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem venerate the Old Testament, they probably know that the Book of Judges includes a reckless Samson telling Delilah that if his hair were cut, his strength would disappear. Bad move.

It was probably stupid, too, for a prison guard to order the forcible shearing of the dreadlocks of an inmate, Omar Grayson, a member of the African Hebrew group. A federal appeals court has just ruled in favor of Mr. Grayson in a decision that includes an improbable visual reference to Bob Marley.

The court reversed a trial court that threw out Mr. Grayson’s lawsuit, which claimed his free exercise of religion was violated when his dreadlocks were shorn. According to the opinion, some, but not all, African Hebrew Israelites believe they should not cut their hair.

Illinois inmates can “have any length of hair” as long as it “does not create a security risk,” according to prison regulations. Harold Schuler, an officer at Big Muddy Correctional Center, just south of tiny Ina, in Jefferson County, thought Mr. Grayson’s dreadlocks posed such a risk, though he did not explain why.

When the inmate complained, the chaplain claimed that only Rastafarian inmates were entitled to wear dreadlocks on religious grounds. An internal prison appeal was denied, based on the chaplain’s theological analysis.

But a panel of Richard Posner, Ilana Rovner and David Hamilton of the United States Court of Appeals — in a case in which Mr. Grayson represented himself — said the decision made no sense, even if the judges appreciate how dreadlocks could conceal contraband. It explains why Judge Posner, who wrote the opinion, includes a photo of Marley to underscore how “dreadlocks can attain a formidable length and density.”

Faculty: 
Richard A. Posner