California State Prisons Go For Military Look

Critics say new rules outlawing long hair, beards may further strain bulging prisons.

California'S 153,000 prisoners are all getting new military-style haircuts - like it or not.

According to new grooming rules passed by the California Department of Corrections (CDC), there will be no more long hair, beards, large mustaches - or, for that matter, earrings or makeup.

Enacted Jan. 1, the new rules are the most recent development in the trend of restricting inmate liberties. Across the country, privileges such as contact visits, reading rights, and access to law libraries have been increasingly curtailed - and prisons here are even considering eliminating all conjugal visits and care packages. The moves are a part of the shift away from rehabilitation toward more punishment, and some critics worry that this path may lead to prison unrest.

Yet for many prison officials, the reasons for the change are obvious. "The point is to show them who's in control," says one Texas corrections official. Indeed, California officials claim the new rules will make prisons safer.

"We've had more than one incident where a prisoner had long hair and a beard, and shaved just before escaping, making it harder for law enforcement to catch them," says Christine May, spokesperson for the CDC. There is also the issue of hiding weapons, drugs, and other contraband in hair and beards. Other CDC concerns include maintaining "reasonable hygiene" and "removing [prisoners'] affiliation with gangs or other groups," says Ms. May.

Good sense or overkill?

But critics call the rules overkill. "The CDC already has metal detectors that can see contraband inside inmates' bodies," says Milliard Murphy of the Prison Law Project, a nonprofit that litigates on behalf of convicts.

CDC officials are also quick to point out that no prisoner will be "physically forced" to obey the new grooming rules. But administrative measures such as loss of good time, and ultimately, time in solitary confinement or "segregation" will be used.

The rules have drawn fire from prisoners, their advocates, and even some guards, who worry that, far from enhancing safety, the rules will provoke violence in a system that is already tense at 202 percent capacity.

In a San Quentin state prison classroom of prison veterans, some inmates expressed concerns about the changes. "We do have a little bit of a life here, debased as it is, but there's stuff to do," says one clean-cut lifer. "[This] is just too much."

Even the leadership of the guards union - the politically potent California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) - is worried. "Massive and sudden changes can bring massive resistance," says Lance Corchran, vice president of the CCPOA. "I worked in the joints for 10 years and I've seen how things go. Once, inmates held a huge sit-down strike because they thought we'd been serving them pancakes too many days in a row."

How other states cope

Other states have maintained grooming restrictions for decades, most notably the massive corrections departments in Florida and Texas. In Texas - home to 141,000 prisoners - grooming "is part of the overall disciplinary program," says spokesman Larry Todd. There, prisoners still wear distinctive uniforms, must walk in strictly designated paths, and are awakened as early as 3:30 a.m.

California's new rules amend a landmark 1976 inmate bill of rights, won through years of prisoner organizing, that sought to speed rehabilitation by putting more responsibility in convicts' hands. But in 1984, the CDC removed "rehabilitation" from its list of official goals, and May says the 1976 bill went too far: "It said that inmates could control what goes on in the institution."

So far, no lawsuits have been filed, though at least five inmates have refused to comply. Mr. Murphy predicts that suits will be filed by native Americans, Orthodox Jews, and Rastafarians - all of whom wear long hair for reasons of faith. The state, however, does not plan to accommodate them. "Someone who is in prison has already violated the tenets of their religion," explains May.

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