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Settlement will allow Va. inmates to grow beards

Friday - 9/14/2012, 1:51pm  ET

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia inmates soon will be allowed to grow beards after the state settled a lawsuit filed by a Sunni Muslim man who argued his religion requires him to maintain facial hair.

The settlement between the state and William R. Couch, signed this week, allows inmates to sport up to 1/4-inch beards beginning in October. Couch, who is serving multiple life terms for rape and other convictions, shaved his beard after the Virginia Department of Corrections adopted a grooming policy in 1999 but wants to regrow it in keeping with his faith.

It's the latest chip in the state's longstanding grooming policy, which banned beards and hair beyond the collar for male inmates.

Several Rastafarian and other inmates unsuccessfully challenged the policy and were held in segregation for more than a decade for refusing to cut their hair for religion reasons. In 2010, the state relented and moved those inmates to a separate living space where they have more privileges but remain segregated from other prisoners.

A federal judge dismissed Couch's lawsuit in 2011, but a federal appeals court revived it in May, saying federal law protecting prisoners' religious rights requires the government to use "the least restrictive means" to further its interest in prison security.

Inmates who can't shave for medical reasons are exempted from the policy and are allowed to maintain a 1/4-inch beard. Couch argued that if the prison system can exempt inmates for medical reasons, it should be able to accommodate his religious beliefs as well.

Virginia's grooming policy is more restrictive than most states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"Nobody has ever explained in the course of this or the previous litigation why Virginia is different than every other prison and the federal system," said Jeffrey Fogel, Couch's attorney.

A Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The policy says beards are prohibited for health reasons and because they could be used to conceal contraband or promote identification with gangs. Escapees also could alter their appearance by shaving, making them more difficult to identify and apprehend, according to prison officials.

The new policy requires those who want to grow a beard to take a separate identification photo so that the prison will have one on file with the inmate with and without facial hair. The inmate must pay $2 for the additional photo, which Fogel argues is excessive for inmates who make up to 35 cents per hour.

Fogel likened the win to the trench warfare of World War I. It's a victory, he said, but the state gave only a small concession in the overall fight against the grooming policy.

"If this is a sign of moving in that direction, terrific, but we'll see," he said.

The new policy states that the beard must cover the entire facial hair area and contain no shapes or designs, so no goatees will be allowed. The barbershop will be equipped with a 1/4-inch beard trimmer to be used instead of rulers to determine compliance.

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