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Rastafarian fights solitary confinement over dreadlocks

By
Pamela Manson
Eric McGill Jr., awaiting trial on charges stemming from a shooting, has been placed in solitary confinement for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project
Eric McGill Jr., awaiting trial on charges stemming from a shooting, has been placed in solitary confinement for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project

March 19 (UPI) -- A Pennsylvania inmate placed in solitary confinement because he refuses to cut off his dreadlocks is asking a judge to expedite his lawsuit challenging his detention conditions.

Eric McGill Jr. -- a Rastafarian who follows the "nazirite vow" taken by Samson in the Bible to avoid cutting his hair -- has been in administrative segregation in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility since his arrival on Jan. 19, 2019.

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McGill, 27, who is awaiting trial on charges stemming from a shooting that injured four people, was put in solitary confinement for failing to comply with a rule prohibiting braids and cornrows.

The jail's rules, which officials say aim to stop inmates from hiding contraband in their hair and to ensure cleanliness, allow long hair only if it is tied up or worn in a single ponytail. No religious exemptions are made for dreadlocks.

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McGill offered to tie up his dreadlocks, but he still landed in the jail's Security Housing Unit for refusing to have them cut off, according to his lawsuit.

McGill is allowed out of his cell for up to one hour a day five days a week between midnight and 2 a.m. for recreation, according to the suit. That is the only time McGill can use the phone, and he is limited to one visit a week for a maximum of 30 minutes. The lights in the unit are on 22 hours a day.

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The conditions have caused McGill to suffer depression and frequent panic attacks and exacerbated a previously diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, the suit alleges.

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Suit: cruel and unusual

At first, McGill, who is not a lawyer, filed a suit himself alleging cruel and unusual punishment and false imprisonment and sought to end his solitary confinement. He later wrote to the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the nonprofit is representing him for free.

The project provides assistance to low-income people who are incarcerated or institutionalized in civil cases that allege their constitutional rights have been violated.

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The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, seeks McGill's immediate placement in the general jail population and an unspecified amount of money for compensatory and punitive damages. Warden Robert Karnes, two other correctional employees and Lebanon County are named as defendants

McGill's attorneys contend his placement in solitary confinement violates the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars prisons and jails from placing arbitrary or unnecessary restrictions on religious practice.

"Mr. McGill believes that his spirit lives through his dreadlocks," the suit says. "Mr. McGill also believes that his dreadlocks keep him spiritually pure, a requisite for entry into the afterlife. For Mr. McGill, cutting off his dreadlocks would be akin to cutting off his strength and his spirit."

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The suit also alleges the defendants are violating McGill's right under the 14th Amendment's due process clause to be free from punishment as a pretrial detainee.

'Dreadlocks detached'

The defendants have responded in court documents that the braids and cornrows policy in the jail's rules is reasonable and has legitimate interests of security and cleanliness. They say the policy applies to all inmates, and those who keep their dreadlocks are placed in administrative segregation.

"Other inmates chose to have the dreadlocks detached, at which time inmates were removed from administrative segregation and placed into the general population," attorney Peggy Morcom, who represents Lebanon County and its employees, wrote.

Another attorney for the defendants, Matthew Clayberger, argues in a brief that McGill "refers to the security housing unit as 'solitary confinement,' but the evidence will prove that this is simply not the case."

Clayberger declined to discuss the case.

The Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project lawyers argue that the rules do not cover dreadlocks because they are not braids or cornrows. Dreadlocks form naturally without any manipulation in some people's hair.

"Once hair has naturally formed dreadlocks, it cannot be taken out of dreadlocks. The only way to 'remove' natural dreadlocks is to cut them off," the suit says.

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Managing attorney Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz said several other Rastafarian inmates have been put in solitary confinement for declining to cut their dreadlocks. Prisoners with long straight hair are allowed to pull their hair into a ponytail, but offers by these inmates to tie up their hair were rejected, she said.

Morgan-Kurtz said any security concerns could be addressed with searches and disputed that there is a cleanliness issue with dreadlocks, calling that assertion "racist." She pointed out that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons and many jails and prisons in the country, permit dreadlocks.

In addition to McGill and other prisoners who are in administrative segregation, prisoners who are in disciplinary confinement are put in the Security Housing Unit, the suit says. The estimated sentences for intoxication, fighting and threatening an employee with bodily harm range from 30 to 120 day, the suit says.

Earlier this month, McGill's lawyers filed a request for limited, expedited discovery, which is the pretrial exchange of evidence. The request is pending.

'Social death'

The United Nations has recognized solitary confinement for any duration lasting more than 15 days as a form of torture. The American Civil Liberties Union says solitary confinement costs too much, does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners and causes or exacerbates mental illness.

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Alexander Reinert, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, describes solitary confinement as a form of "social death." Even when it's imposed for a short period, solitary confinement has a detrimental effect on a person's psychological and physical health, and as the time in isolation gets longer, the risk of harm increases, he said.

"Solitary confinement is the most severe kind of punishment that we inflict on people short of executing them," said Reinert, who specializes in the rights of prisoners and detainees.

Two recent reports by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School show that prison directors around the country are trying to reduce the use of solitary confinement, Reinert said.

However, isolating inmates still is used too much and for too long, he said. In addition, prison systems have increased the kinds of disciplinary incidents that are punished with solitary confinement, he said.

The reports define solitary confinement as holding individuals in their cells for 22 hours or more each day and for 15 continuous days or more at a time. They estimate that on an average day, as many as 5 percent of prisoners are held in solitary.

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