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Pa. jail changes policy to allow dreadlocks for religious reasons

By
Pamela Manson
Eric McGill Jr. follows the nazirite vow taken by Samson in the Bible to avoid cutting his hair. File Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project
Eric McGill Jr. follows the "nazirite vow" taken by Samson in the Bible to avoid cutting his hair. File Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project

May 7 (UPI) -- Two Rastafarian inmates who refused to cut off their dreadlocks have been taken out of solitary confinement at a Pennsylvania jail after fighting for a policy change to wear their hair in braids and cornrows for religious reasons.

Eric McGill Jr. -- who follows the "nazirite vow" taken by Samson in the Bible to avoid cutting his hair -- had been in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility's Security Housing Unit since his arrival on Jan. 19, 2019. Leonttayy Pratt had been housed there for more than four months.

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For most inmates, the policy still allows long hair only if it is tied up or worn in a single ponytail to keep them from hiding contraband and to ensure cleanliness. The revision adds an exemption to the regulations for inmates with "sincerely held religious beliefs" that require them to wear their hair in a certain style.

The policy change stemmed from a lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court alleging McGill's 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.

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The suit also alleges placement in solitary confinement violates McGill's right under the 14th Amendment's due process clause to be free from punishment as a pretrial detainee. The 27-year-old is awaiting trial on charges stemming from a shooting that injured four people

"I feel like I did the right thing," McGill said in a written statement after the policy change. "I made a difference not just for me but for others who didn't have a voice."

The suit seeks McGill's immediate placement in the general jail population and an unspecified amount of money for compensatory and punitive damages. After the change in the hair policy, his attorneys withdrew their motion for a preliminary injunction that would have required the move out of the Security Housing Unit pending resolution of the suit.

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Pratt, who also is a pretrial detainee, was moved because he has a similar lawsuit pending against jail officials.

Both inmates are being represented for free by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, a nonprofit that provides assistance to low-income people who are incarcerated or institutionalized in civil cases that allege their constitutional rights have been violated.

The transfers to the general population have not ended either suit. The project is pursuing a court order to remove the "racist" distinction between long straight hair and other hairstyles, including dreadlocks, which are primarily worn by black people.

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Managing attorney Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz said inmates should be allowed to have dreadlocks for reasons other than religion.

"We think there's no rational reason that people should be allowed to have long straight hair but if they have dreadlocks, they have to choose between solitary confinement or cutting them off," Morgan-Kurtz said Wednesday.

While he was in the Security Housing Unit, McGill was 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 his suit. He was limited to one visit a week for a maximum of 30 minutes, the suit says, and the lights in the unit were on 22 hours a day.

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