NEW ORLEANS -- Can a state inmate be forced to cut his hair to comply with prison rules, or should he be allowed to keep his hair style since it is part of his religious beliefs?

That’s what the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will have to decide after hearing arguments Wednesday morning in the case of a Rastafarian inmate with dreadlocks.

Christopher Ware, who is being housed at the Caddo Parish jail instead of a state prison, claims his rights could be violated by the state Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits dreadlocks.

“The right to religious freedom doesn’t end at the jailhouse door,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “That’s why federal law protects prisoners from religious discrimination and why the ACLU will continue to defend the rights of all people to express their religious beliefs.”

Outside of the courthouse, an attorney for the DOC said the grooming policy is in place for safety reasons and as a way to prevent contraband getting into jails.

“They go to their work sites and come back in from the work sites, they have to be search because a lot of the times the contraband is found when they’re doing trash cleanup,” Susan Griffin said. “It’s a security risk and a health risk for the officers. What if there was a hypodermic needle in one of the braids that they could get punctured, or something like that?”

Essman said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress passed in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination against incarcerated people and “requires that any burdens on prisoners’ rights serve a compelling state interest and be imposed through the least restrictive means possible.”
Ware filed a prior lawsuit in which lawyers claimed the DOC's intake policies require that all male inmates “receive — forcibly, if necessary — a closely-cropped haircut with clippers, commonly known as a ‘buzz cut.’”

“As an exercise of his faith, he took what he describes as the ‘Vow of the Nazarite,’ one aspect of which requires him not to cut or style the hair on his head,” according to court documents. “As a result of Ware's adoption of the Nazarite vow in connection with his Rastafari religious exercise, his hair has grown and continues to grow into long dreadlocks.”

A district court ruled in favor of the DOC in 2014, something the state ACLU appealed. In its appeal, the ACLU said 39 states – and even DOC’s own guidelines for parish jails – impose less restrictive grooming policies.

It will be several weeks before the panel of Fifth Circuit judges issues its opinion on Wednesday’s hearing.

Ware pleaded guilty to was convicted of two counts of sexual battery in 2014. He began practicing Rastifarianism in “late 2011 or early 2012,” according to court documents.