LOS ANGELES The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an incarcerated Native American, alleging that he has lost privileges in state prison because he refuses to cut his hair.
Billy Soza Warsoldier, 55, claims in the suit filed in U.S. District Court March 31 by the ACLU of Southern California that his religious beliefs would be violated if he cut his hair. His faith prohibits him from chopping some of his locks except if someone in his family dies.
Since 1971, Warsoldier has cut hair only once when his father died in 1980.
The suit alleges that the state Department of Corrections punished Warsoldier for refusing to comply with a grooming policy that requires all male inmates to keep their hair no longer than three inches.
Warsoldier, who belongs to the Cahuilla tribe, is serving a 19-month sentence for drunken driving at Adelanto Community Correctional Facility.
Warsoldier has been found guilty by prison officials of violating the grooming code. He appealed the ruling but lost. He has lost his visitation rights, is prohibited from receiving quarterly packages and was removed from prison vocational courses as a result of his stance, the suit claims.
"Punishing Warsoldier for practicing his religion is both unnecessary and illegal," said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney. "A prison inmate shouldn't have to choose between remaining faithful to his religion and maintaining contact with his children and grandchildren."
Calls made to the Department of Corrections for this report were not immediately returned.
The suit seeks to enjoin prison officials from enforcing the grooming policy against Warsoldier and to reinstate his privileges.
Warsoldier says he believes that his long hair symbolizes strength and wisdom he has accumulated during his life. Despite losing his appeal, he still has kept his long, dark hair but has not regained any of his benefits.
"I don't understand why I'm being punished for practicing my faith," Warsoldier said in a statement. "I would prefer to take the state's punishment than violate my faith."