As someone who spent four years in Eugene, Oregon, a.k.a. Berkeley North, I had a fair amount of exposure to Rastafarianism. I think most people's only contact with the religion -- if they've had any at all -- comes from college kids and/or big weed-smokers who invoke Bob Marley, the religion's most famous ambassador. The upper-middle-class white kids at school were constantly sparking up the one-hitter between classes were derisively known as "Trustifarians," as in trust fund Rastafarians. Obviously, I knew that there were some people that regarded Rastafarianism as a serious religious discipline. But given my limited exposure to the religion (which is loosely organized to begin with), it's hard to envision what it meant to be a committed Rastafarian this side of Jamaica. So along comes this terrific AP story that discusses one prisoner's devotion to Rastafarianism:
For more than 10 years he has lived in segregation at the Greensville Correctional Center, spending at least 23 hours every day in a cell the size of a gas station bathroom. In a temporary home for the worst of the worst -- inmates too violent or disruptive to live among the rest of society's outcasts -- he has been a permanent fixture.
He is there, he says, not for his crimes but for a crime he will not commit -- a crime against God.
The only thing imposing about Gibson is his long black dreadlocks, resting on the front of his shoulders so they won't drag the ground as he shuffles along in his orange jumpsuit.
It is his hair -- winding locks he considers a measure of his Rastafarian faith -- that makes him a threat, according to Virginia Department of Corrections Operating Procedure No. 864.1.
The writer Dena Potter does a really thorough job explaining the little-understood and much-maligned religion:
Gibson had always loved the "peaceful vibes of Rastafari livity," but like many he knew the movement by the hair, the music and the ganja. In prison, he met others who taught him the spiritual aspects. He took on the name Ras-Talawa Tafari, a strong leader who inspires awe.
Rastafari draws from the Bible, mixing in African and Caribbean cultural influences. It is considered by many more of a way of life or movement than a religion. They preach unity with god, nature and each other, but are loosely organized and followers are free to worship with other congregations.
Rastafarians regard Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who was known as Ras Tafari before he rose to power in 1930, as the second coming of Christ. They believe Jah inhabits them so there it no real need for a church. They smoke marijuana as a sacrament and adhere to a vegetarian diet.
While some view growing their hair as optional, most Rastafarians see it as demanded by the Nazarite Vow in the Bible (Numbers 6:5), "There shall no razor come upon his head."
Interestingly enough, Gibson is one a number of devoted Rastafarians who are stuck in this awful predicament. Potter does a good job of running through the debate between religious freedom and the Department of Corrections insistence on cutting long hair as a matter of safety. All sides of the debate are well represented:
They made a choice to go to segregation instead of cutting their hair, spokesman Larry Traylor says. Should they decide to comply with the grooming policy, they could return to general population.
"Rules must be in place in order to have a secure, safe environment for everyone," Traylor said. "An inmate that will not follow the rules jeopardizes normal prison operations and is potentially a danger to other inmates and staff."
Virginia is among only about a dozen states, mostly in the South, that limit the length of inmates' hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow religious accommodations for Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs, native Americans and others whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving or cutting their hair.
There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that constitutional protections, like the right to practice religion, do not end at the prison gates. Congress has said institutions can restrict religious liberties only for compelling reasons, like security, but the policies must be the least restrictive means to accomplish that.
I really have to give it up for the writer of this story. They took what might seem on first glance to be an obscure curiosity and managed to draw out a truly illuminating portrait of a little understood religion and an in depth discussion on the state of religious rights in prisons. Then wrapped both issues around a genuinely compelling personal portrait and delivered it to the reader in one neat little package. Well done.