By Rend Smith
In the early part of this decade, a prisoner named Bradley Maxwell got into trouble for refusing a haircut. He was serving time at the Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia. He had been convicted of a separate transgression back in his home in the Virgin Islands but was nevertheless shipped to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, in the United States.
Why was a state facility taking on an out-of-state convict? Simple. He was worth money. The Virgin Islands would pay Virginia $30,000 to house Maxwell. A sweet deal considering after its 1990’s prison boom Virginia had lots of extra prison space.
But back to Maxwell’s hair.
The Ridge likes its prisoners to look “nice.” State “grooming policy” for Virginia’s incarcerated is ridiculously strict: Prisoner’s “hair will be neatly cut and must be cut above the shirt collar and around the ears,” the policy states. It likewise forbids inmates from having beards.
At the notorious Appalachian supermax, Maxwell donned both long hair (in the form of dreadlocks) and beard. When he was told he needed to sport a more conservative look, the inmate resisted. Punishment ensued. He was tossed into solitary confinement. There, he asserts in a court document, he suffered degrading searches, abusive language, and threats from guards.
Dennis Blyden, another Virgin Island prisoner sent to the Ridge, may have experienced something similar. According to a complaint filed by his lawyer, as a consequence of donning dreads and beard, Blyden was placed in “continuous segregation” and forbidden basic privileges.
Indeed, this week marks the sixth year that six Rastafarian prisoners have been held in isolation in Virginia prisons for refusing to cut their hair.
It might seem crazy for two prisoners to willingly endure that kind of punishment over appearance, but Maxwell and Blyden, as it turns out, weren’t resisting state edict as a matter of personal style. The men were practicing their religion.
The Rastafarian sect of Christianity, popular in the Caribbean islands, asks male devotees to remain unshorn. By balking at a haircut the men were keeping their faith.
According to activist Kim Lyons, many other VI Rastas freighted to Wallens Ridge face a similar dilemma: Defy their jailers or betray their beliefs. Some of those who have chosen religion over compliance have been in isolation since 2001, Lyons says. Marooned and voiceless—the culturally misunderstood transplants don’t have a lot going for them.
They do have Lyons. The activist has gotten the word out about why VI prisoners should be brought back from places like the Ridge: “These transfers to off-island facilities place tremendous hardships upon prisoner families and love ones,” she writes in an editorial. “Moreover, we have chosen facilities that are notorious for their human rights violations and abuses.” Like punishing a guy for his hairstyle.
Lyons has succeeded in getting 103 of her fellow islanders “back home” through the Virginia Island Prison Project. But says she won’t stop until every VI prisoner is returned.