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From Richmond Times-Dispatch

Dec. 7, 2009

Rastafarian inmates in segregation for nearly 10 years


By Frank Green


RICHMOND, Va. -- Bill Clinton was president when a handful of Virginia prisoners entered segregation cells rather than cut their hair. The inmates, Rastafarians, complain the Department of Corrections' grooming policy of Dec. 15, 1999, violates their religion. Followers of the Rastafari movement let their hair grow in dreadlocks and let their beards grow.

Among other things, the policy requires that male inmates' hair be cut above the shirt collar and around the ears for security and health reasons.

Next week marks a decade that at least eight of them have been confined alone in small cells for refusing to comply -- allowed out for three showers and five hourlong recreation periods a week.

Eric Balaban, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, has never heard of anything like it in any other state. "That really is remarkable -- based solely upon the continued violation of grooming policy -- to put somebody in the hole for 10 years," he said.

"Why would you use up your valuable space in segregation for these guys?" Balaban asked.

Because they are in segregation, the inmates cannot be interviewed. Six, however, recently wrote to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. They said many were originally in segregation at the same prison but were later scattered to other prisons across the state.

"I can't speak for all the others' experience, but for me, being in seg. for as long as I have been . . . has created a deep rooted bitterness, frustration, and depression," wrote inmate Allen McRae, also known as Ras-Solomon Tafari.

McRae, 32, serving a 20-year sentence for cocaine possession, said, "my normal day . . . is a repetitive cycle of stress and frustration."

Elton L. Williams, 30, a Greensville Correctional Center inmate, forwarded a list of nine current inmates, including McRae and himself, who he says have been in segregation for 10 years.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, confirmed that eight of the nine have been in segregation for nearly 10 years. The total number of inmates in segregation for refusing to comply was not available.

Among other things, the policy is intended to help identify prisoners who could otherwise change their appearances from the mug shots taken when they first entered the system.

Female inmates' hair must be no longer than shoulder length. One or two braids or ponytails are allowed, but hair must be kept out of the face and eyes. As of four years ago, no female inmates were in segregation for failing to comply.

The ACLU of Virginia challenged the grooming policy, alleging it violates the religious rights of Rastafarian and Muslim inmates under a federal law, but lost. The court ruled the state had a compelling interest in imposing the grooming policy.

Those in segregation say they are allowed one non-contact visit per week and two phone calls a month.

The department says they cannot participate in recreational, educational or treatment programs and are not earning any so-called "good-time" parole credits. But they are able to speak with inmates in adjacent cells and with staff.

A 10th inmate on Williams' list is Ivan Sparks, once the "elder" of the Rastafarian community at the Buckingham Correctional Center.

Unknown to Williams when he wrote the new list was that Sparks, 59 -- after spending nearly the last 10 years of his life in segregation -- died Oct. 21 at VCU Medical Center from renal failure because of prostate cancer.

Sparks wrote to The Times-Dispatch in 2005 and identified 11 Rastafarians, including himself, who had been in segregation at that time for nearly six years.

"He was a great person," said inmate Devon Sutherland, 50, who has also been in segregation for 10 years. "I knew he had two daughter he love, he had love his religious conviction."

Evans Hopkins, a former prison inmate, award-winning writer and author of "Life After Life," knew Sparks well when the two served a total of 16 years together in two different prisons. Hopkins mentioned him in his book and says Sparks was a sincere Rastafarian.

"I'm not a Rastafarian and don't necessarily ascribe to all their beliefs . . . but I know Ivan Sparks believed with all his heart," Hopkins said. Sparks, from New York, was convicted of murder in Danville in 1981 and sentenced to 51 years.

Hopkins plans to ask Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to provide some sort of help for the inmates. He said 10 years of segregation "should rule out anyone who only wants to wear dreadlocks simply to make a fashion statement."

Hopkins and Sutherland question the adequacy of medical attention given those in segregation.

Another inmate in segregation, Kendall Gibson, 37, also known as Ras-Talawa Tafari, wrote that, "today I came out of the cell twice -- I went for my twelfth parole hearing and took a shower. I don't go out to the [recreation] cages when the weather is cold."

Convicted of robbery, abduction and firearms charges and sentenced to 47 years, Gibson was first eligible for discretionary parole in 1998. He said that if not for the grooming policy, he might have already been released on parole.

Because he has been in segregation and cannot earn the good-time reductions, Gibson said, he is unlikely to be released until 2023.

But, he said, "I'm not going to bow."

"I personally do not dwell upon all the down depression -- I just try to make the best of my situation by keeping focus on the 'good' things I need to know and learn," he said, adding, "I haven't seen a TV since 1999."

Williams, serving 14 years for robbery, says the Rastafarians are being punished more severely than serial killers or prisoners who attack officers or other inmates. Those inmates can re-enter the general population, "not us, though," he said.

"Solitary confinement has become our doom," he complained.

"The best way to describe it would be in comparison to a faucet drip . . . after 10 years I would think it's now time for a plumber," Williams wrote.

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or fgreen@timesdispatch.com .