As reported, on a weekly basis, Georgia correctional officers force Bryan Kawand Sims to cut his hair and shave his face, an act that Sims alleges violates his Rastafarian faith. So last month, when the prison denied Sims a formal exemption to the prison’s hair prohibition, Sims filed federal suit against the Baldwin State Prison, alleging the policy violates federal law and Sims’s 1st and 14th Amendment rights.
As stated in his pro se complaint, before filing suit, Sims met with the prison chaplain to provide evidence to the prison regarding the sincerity and tenets of his beliefs. Shortly after their last meeting, however, Sims was “locked in a cage” where he refused to shave his chin area because it would “violate his religious beliefs.” In the cage, an officer threatened to deprive Sims of access to the law library and then eventually “muscled down” Sims in order to shave Sims’ “hair and face … by force.”
Sims is now forced to shave or cut his hair on a weekly basis in accordance with the prison’s grooming policy. As stated in the Baldwin State Prison’s Offender Orientation Handbook, the prison prohibits “the growing or wearing of the hair on the head long enough to extend onto the collar of an ordinary shirt, cover any part of the ears or eye brows, or to be longer than three (3) inches on top.” The prison also bans incarcerated persons from having “goatees, beards, and similar facial adornments.”
Sims has alleged multiple claims in his handwritten complaint. First, by denying Sims’s religious exemption, the Prison “refuse[d] to recognize the Rastafarian religious practice of the sacred dreadlocks … and ordered [Sims’s] hair be clipped and chin be shaved, immediately denying defendant to his [federal statutory] rights and his protection under the 1st and 14th Amendments.” Sims also alleges multiple claims for the verbal and physical harassment he has suffered over his refusal to cut his hair, including explicit and blatant disregard for his religious preferences and for the actual or threatened physical force officers use to shave, or force Sims to shave, his head and face.
For relief, Sims wants the prison to recognize his Rastafarian faith, and “specifically provide a religious exemption profile permitting [him] sacred dreadlocks to grow 3-feet and prohibit the cutting of specifically the chin area.” He has also requested compensation for court fees and mental anguish from the constant harassment of the correctional officers.
As discussed in Dressing Constitutionally, courts have found that in order to avoid violating a person’s constitutional rights, a prison must to make accommodations for religious reasons, but the considerations of those rights will be balanced against any safety and other concerns the prison may put forth, making Sims’s chances for relief uncertain as he begins the second year of his life sentence.