Judge: Ohio prisons system cannot cut Rastafarian inmate's dreadlocks
Deon Glenn, who had to cut his dreadlocks due to policy, said the policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
By Eric Heisig
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A federal judge ruled that Ohio prisons staff may not force a murderer who practices Rastafarianism to cut his dreadlocks.
Deon Glenn, a Trumbull Correctional Institution inmate, said he wore his hair in dreadlocks without incident until September 2016. That's when prison staff told him that he would have to cut his hair to comply with Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Protection policies that banned hairstyle and did not allow for a religious exemption.
Glenn, who has practiced Rastafarianism since 2012, refused based on his religious views.
Guards disciplined him and placed him in solitary confinement where he could not sleep for several days. He finally acquiesced and had his dreadlocks cut to avoid more discipline. He filed suit in February, arguing that the policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Chief U.S. District Patricia Gaughan agreed in a ruling Monday and barred the prisons system from enforcing its grooming policies against Glenn. Her ruling does not apply to other inmates who did not sue. Gaughan said judges must evaluate each case on a case-by-case basis.
Gaughan's ruling relied largely on a U.S. Supreme Court case that involved a Muslim prison inmate who was not allowed to grow his beard. The case made clear that prison systems must make religious accommodations for inmates and, if they need to intrude, must find the least restrictive way to do so.
Since Ohio's policy includes a blanket ban on dreadlocks and no way to apply for a religious exemption, the policy violates the law, Gaughan wrote. She wrote that other state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons either allow inmates to have dreadlocks or provide a way to apply for a religious accommodation.
The Ohio prisons system did not prove that Glenn's hair was not able to be searched for contraband or posed a safety risk, according to Gaughan.
"The Court is mindful of the difficulties faced by prison staff and is aware that prisons are unique institutions with serious safety concerns," Gaughan wrote. "Nor does the Court mean to suggest that defendants cannot ban unsearchable hair. The problem defendants now face, however, is that the policies before the Court are not so drafted."
Glenn, 29, is serving a sentence of up to life for firing at a group of teenagers, killing one and hitting another in the leg in 2007.
He is represented by three interns at the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center at Case Western Reserve University's law school.
Avidan Cover, a law professor who supervises students at the clinic, said a problematic part of the Ohio prison system's policy is that inmates can't apply for a religious accommodation. He said the prisons system could easily fix the policy to address security concerns in a way that would be allowed by the law.
"As far as I can tell, they've dug in their heels and won't change the policy," Cover said.
Prisons department spokeswoman JoEllen Smith declined to comment.
The law school is also representing Cecil Koger, another killer who filed suit in November with similar claims. His lawsuit is pending in front of U.S. District Judge Benita Pearson in Youngstown.
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