Court Saves Rastafarian Inmate’s Dreadlocks

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By Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson

A Rastafarian inmate in a Louisiana prison can’t be forced to cut off his dreadlocks, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said Aug. 17 ( Ware v. La. Dep’t of Corr. , 2017 BL 263495, 5th Cir., No. 16-31012, 7/28/17 ).

The Louisiana Department of Corrections’s “grooming policy"—prohibiting such hairstyles—runs afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the court said, in an opinion by Judge Carolyn Dineen King.

RLUIPA prohibits prisons from unnecessarily burdening inmates’ religious practices.

Both parties agreed that Christopher Ware’s religious practices would be burdened if forced to cut his hair, the court said. Ware had made a religious vow not to cut or style his hair, the court explained.

So the prison had to show that it had a compelling justification for the grooming policy, that couldn’t be accomplished any other way.

The prison failed both requirements.

The prison’s stated justifications, including prohibiting contraband, were underminded by the fact that the grooming policy didn’t apply to DOC inmates housed in “parish jails” due to overcrowding. Such inmates accounted for nearly half of the DOC’s inmate population, the court said.

Moreover, the prison couldn’t show that it’s goals could only be accomplished via the grooming policy. In particular, 39 other jurisdictions, including the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, allow dreadlocks without substantial disruption to their safety goals, the court said.

Judges Edward C. Prado and Leslie H. Southwick joined the opinion.

Hogan Lovells US LLP, Baltimore; the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Louisiana, New Orleans; and Davidson, Jones & Summers, Shreveport, La., represented Ware. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections, Baton Rouge, La., represented the state DOC.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at

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