Eric S. McGill Jr., an inmate at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, has been kept in solitary confinement for over a year for refusing to cut his dreadlocks.
McGill, who is awaiting trial in a shooting case and is a Rastafarian by faith, believes cutting off his dreadlocks would make him lose his strength in the afterlife as he believes his spirit lives in them.
According to the Associated Press, the 27-year-old filed a hand-written lawsuit against three senior administrators at the correctional facility seeking his release from solitary confinement. A group of lawyers, in an amended complaint that was filed two weeks ago, also argued that McGill’s mental state, after being put in solitary confinement was getting worse as he suffers anxiety attacks at least two times a week due to his current isolation.
“By keeping Mr. McGill in solitary confinement because he refuses to cut off his dreadlocks, (the) defendants have inhibited his right to free exercise of religion for no legitimate penological purpose,” McGill’s lawyers told the court.
Lebanon County’s lawyer for labor and employment matters, Peggy Morcom, did not respond to the amended complaints when reached. In court filings that were submitted last month, however, Morcom, argued that state laws enable county jails to prescribe hairstyles to ensure they “comply with sanitation and security policies,” the Associated Press reports.
According to Morcom, the stipulated hairstyle policy was put in place to prevent inmates from hiding contraband and also to “ensure security and cleanliness.” She also referenced a 2006 state Commonwealth Court decision which ruled that state prisons “held that the legitimate interests of the correctional facility outweighed any rights the prisoner had” in regards to hairstyle preference.
An amended inmate grooming policy released by the state prison in 2016 dissolved restrictions on the length of hair for inmates, allowing for hair searches that can involve inmates running their fingers through their own hair. Dreadlocks can also be searched for contraband with handheld metal detectors, the Associated Press further reports.
These amended policies, however, do not apply to county jails, with the Lebanon County Correctional Facility falling within that category.
“He’s been suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been exacerbated by his time in solitary confinement, as well as anxiety attacks, and the jail is aware of this, because they’ve been providing or attempting to provide him with treatment for these conditions, but really what they need to do is release him from solitary confinement,” McGill’s attorney told WHTM.
McGill will be on trial later this month on several counts of attempted homicide, aggravated assault, among others, in relation to a shooting incident in January 2019 that left four people injured.