Judge: Prison officials may not forcibly cut Rastafarian inmate’s dreadlocks, violating his religious freedom

A team of Case Western Reserve University law students prevailed in a federal lawsuit arguing that an Ohio inmate should be allowed to keep his dreadlocks, protecting his religious freedom.

U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Gaughan ruled that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s complete ban on dreadlocks and any religious accommodations violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute prohibiting prisons from infringing on inmates’ religious exercise.

Deon Glenn, 29, is an inmate at the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg, who argued that his Rastafarian faith requires him to keep his hair dreadlocked.

When he refused to cut his hair, he was placed in solitary confinement for several days. Eventually, he conceded to avoid further punishment, according to the lawsuit.

“The court finds that (prison’s) grooming policy substantially burdens plaintiff’s religious exercise,” Gaughan wrote in her ruling. Ohio’s “polices are much more restrictive than those of the vast majority of other states.”

The lawsuit was filed in February by Case Western Reserve student interns Anthony Cirranello Jr., Lindsay Cook and Valerie Villacampa and Professor Avidan Cover—all from the School of Law’s Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center.

“This is a testament to our students’ hard work and dedication on this case,” said Cover, also director of the Institute for Global Security Law and Policy. “The ruling marks an important recognition of Congress’s express intent to protect even the least popular and more marginalized people and their religious beliefs and practices.”

Glenn is serving a potential life sentence for murder and attempted murder, stemming from a 2007 shooting in Youngstown. He’s been a devout Rastafarian since 2012. One of the tenets of the faith includes the Nazarite vow, prohibiting hair-cutting.

Rastafarianism began in the slums of Jamaica in the 1920s, and while there is no formal organized leadership, its followers generally believe in the divinity or messiahship of Selassie and emphasize Jamaican culture and African heritage.­

More about the CWRU law clinic

Case Western Reserve’s law school clinics allow for third-year law students to actively participate in legal cases with supervision from law professors instead of merely researching or observing.

Case Western Reserve was among the nation’s first law schools to start such a program, and today the law clinic, which houses the human rights clinic and others, handles more than 200 cases a year, amounting to about 35,000 hours of pro bono legal work.

Cover said that the students “worked tirelessly” on the case, “researching the law, analyzing state prions regulations, talking through issues with the client, drafting the briefs, and addressing all of the state’s arguments, to an ultimately wonderful outcome for the client. This is what hardworking, effective lawyers do. I couldn’t be prouder.”


For more information, contact Colin McEwen at colin.mcewen@case.edu

This article was originally published May 16, 2018.