In the Name of Security Risks

Lil’ Wayne recently pleaded guilty to gun possession and next year he will likely join the cadre of rappers that have gone to jail post-fame and post-economic security. He will lose many rights as a prisoner in New York. However, it is likely that he will also lose the right to wear his hair in the natural style of locs:

“Male prisoners are only allowed to wear their hair in cornrows, going straight back. And they can’t exceed the ‘natural hairline’ in length.” Now of course our question is: what does ‘natural hairline’ mean?
“It means it can’t extend the neck.” But there is one loop-hole in the issue – though I’m not sure it’s going to help Wayne. “Prisoners who claim Rastafarri as their religion are allowed in most cases to keep their locks. But even then there’s a process to determine if it’s genuine.”

I know there is a tendency to not prioritize an injustice until it happens to an entertainer. I also know that it’s more likely to see the freezing over of hell than to hear a feminist coming to the defense of a man that has contributed to the worldwide mass distribution of words, sounds and images that present women as sexual beings and nothing else. But I cannot allow my contempt of his misogyny to allow me to be silent on this. To be silent on this is to collude with racism that masquerades as “rules on personal grooming.”
I will admit that this hits even closer to home for me. I have had my locs for 2 years and 2 months. Already, they are such a big part of me. They represent my ability to strive for patience, as they have gone through different lengths and stages. (Last spring was the first time I could put my hair in a pony tail.) But most of all, my hair texture and it’s ability to coil tightly like tendrils, simply with shea butter and some drying time, represents my heritage. My Blackness. Me. And while this is one variation of blackness, it’s a legitimate one that shouldn’t be sanctioned by the prison system.


Some argue that a marker of one’s very identity should be suppressed in the name of a security risk.

The rules on personal grooming have everything to do with safety and control. Authorities argue that contraband can be hidden in the hair and that i[t] can be shaved to quickly alter appearance in the event of escape.

I believe that this provides an opportunity for us to truly examine whether some of these guidelines are legitimate. For example, friends of mine that work in the Michigan prison system have informed me that prisoners aren’t always told about their health status, when certain health procedures will occur, and what medications they are prescribed. What about if a condition is fatal and one wants to notify their family? In short, how far can the justification of a “security risk” go?
It’s important for feminists and activists of different types to recognize that we all have something at stake in the sanctioning of ethnic hairstyles of this sort. As we near the end of this decade, these past 10 years will go down in history as a time when the threat of security has been utilized as a weapon to deny people of basic civil rights. The passage and implementation of the Patriot Act epitomizes this phenomenon. I am not saying that it is unreasonable to enact regulations on people when they are punished for unequivocal wrongdoings. After all, the point of prison is to lose privileges enjoyed by many. But meaningful civic engagement involves interrogating and assessing whether guidelines or policies are effective and just. This shouldn’t change when those who are subordinate to these policies are prisoners or if the subject is racial identity.

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16 Comments

  1. MLEmac28
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    if they are afraid of people hiding things in their hair, why don’t they just make every prisoner, male and female, black, white, and everything else, keep a short haircut? That way it won’t be targeting people with different hair textures. I some female friends with curly hair who can easily hide shit in it.
    It sounds like they are less concerned about security and more concerned about anyone having any kind of free expression.

  2. mzza
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    your comment about health status in the Michigan prison system resonates with a book I just finished this morning by Victoria Law, “Resistance Behind Bars”:
    http://resistancebehindbars.org/
    which covers a lot of the institutionalized abuse suffered by the incarcerated in the name of “health care”
    Tons of amazing/shocking/horrifying but important info (contemporary and historical) about the invisibility of prisoners made even more important as written through the words and stories of incarcerated women. A must-read for feminists of conscience.

  3. dawn_of_the_bread
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I actually think you’re being a bit absurd here, drawing all these wide-ranging conclusions out of thin air. In truth, enforcement of the rule has nothing to do with race or racial politics.
    The article clearly says that male prisoners in general cannot have long hair. It may be a stupid rule but I see no reason to bend it for people with locks. What about all the white male criminals with long hair (I’m looking at you rock fans)? There’s no reason to believe this rule is being enforced selectively. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.
    Also, tying in the Patriot Act to this is a complete non sequitur; I really have no idea where you got that one from. The Act is a problem because it intrudes on the civil rights of innocent civilians, and is a recent phenomenon. Prisoners on the other hand have always been and will always be treated as potentially dangerous worthy of surveillance, suspicion and curtailment of rights (that’s why they’re in prison!) Moreover, modern prisons are far more humane and respectful of prisoners’ rights than in the past, which is the opposite of the trend represented by the Patriot Act.
    In short, I fail to see how the Patriot Act is a symptom of a broader problem related to the personal grooming practises of inmates.

  4. Monica Shores
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone know if there’s a comparable rule for all men about hair length? I mean would a Latino be allowed to keep a ponytail or a white man keep a mullet?

  5. clementine
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    i wish i could “like” posts. because i really enjoyed reading this but i just don’t feel like i can add anything. :/

  6. msmaddy
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Great post.
    To play devil’s advocate, you said, “He will lose many rights as a prisoner in New York. However, it is likely that he will also lose the right to wear his hair in the natural style of locs” and equated his hair to his identity. Why do you think a prisoner deserves this right, in particular, when s/he is denied so many others?
    Additionally, there are other ways in which prisoners are denied their identities: identification by number, being made to wear the same uniform, etc. I think you’re right that losing his locs makes him lose part of his identity, but isn’t that the point?

  7. FilthyGrandeur
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    the only thing i can say is, “oh no.” seriously. my breath just caught in my throat. while i am admittedly a Lil Wayne fan and have gone to more than one of his concerts, i still discuss / write posts about gender presentations and misogyny in his rap lyrics. having listened to a number of his songs, i’d like to point out that Lil Wayne frequently mentions the length of his hair in several songs. clearly, since it’s important enough to rap about (even in one or two lines), it’s important to him. forcing black men to cut their hair is clearly racist, and thus damaging.
    i know a number of white men with hair longer than their “natural hairline.” does anyone know if white men with long hair must get their hair cut in prison?

  8. Lilith Luffles
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    But if Rastafarians can have dreadlocks, and white men are supposed to have their hair kept above their neck as well, how is this racist?
    This is not racism, this is sexism. Lil Wayne just happens to have dreads. When men are forced to cut their hair in prison, it is more of a way to force them to submit and put them in their place under the guards through emasculation.
    One could argue that this is more damaging to black men and particularly black men with dreads due to historical oppression, but this is not a deliberately racist act.

  9. cattrack2
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    That’s the problem with this post. The policy is not enforced racially. No one–white, black or green–is allowed to have long hair.
    Why should Lil’ Wayne get special treatment for his hair? When he’s outta jail he’ll have plenty of time to grow it back. Actually, cutting his hair is the least of his worries…I imagine he’d trade his hair for a return of his freedom.

  10. Phenicks
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Don’t feel bad, the ACLU has defended the KKK on several occasions and as much as Lil Wayne’s lyrics may get under the skin of most people it’s utter bullshit to compare the two. SO, if ACLU can defend the likes of the KKK and still be touted as not being anti-feminist then you can certainly defend Lil Wayne with your priorities in tact.
    Now, I don’t see the point in making men cut their hair. It’s a stupid rule. Women aren’t made to cut their hair, men shouldn’t be made to cut their hair either.

  11. baddesignhurts
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    yes, they do.
    it’s the same in the military; men have to cut their hair, but women don’t.

  12. nikki#2
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I would very much like to see the any proof that hair length is implemented racially.

  13. Boole13
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    BINGO. And by BINGO, I mean that people are so quick to describe claims of racism as “absurd” thereby attempting to legitimize systems that, while not blatently racist, have very racist implications. There are all sorts of ways that natural African/black hair is controlled and made illegal/disallowed from certain places. And it is not the same as long white-person hair, for those wishing to equate the two.
    I also find it disturbing that one commentator so blankedly said, “This is NOT racism, this is SEXISM.” Do we REALLY have to play that way? Anyone versed or interested in looking at the intersectionality of “isms” and identities should quickly point out that we usually cannot blame one with the exclusion of others.
    Thank you for this post as it brings up a very important issue of the ways that we like to control people of color differently from -and more severely than – their white counterparts.

  14. rhowan
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I found the Inmate Grooming Standards [pdf] for the Department of Corrections in the state of New York. Interestingly long hair IS permitted in prison (theoretically for inmates of all races), but there’s a catch. Several actually.
    Every incoming inmate is required to have their hair cut to no more than 1 inch in length (and remove their facial hair) unless they have a court order against it or are a member of one of a pre-defined set of religious groups. After that they’re allowed to grow their hair long again. I rather suspect this started out as an attempt to reduce lice in prisons, something which (hopefully) isn’t as much of an issue these days.
    After that initial haircut they’re allowed to grow their hair long again, but there are a limited number of allowable hairstyles (see link above), and there are very specific restrictions on braided styles:
    “The only braids allowed are the corn row style. Corn row braids may only be woven close to
    the scalp in straight rows from the forehead to the back of the neck. No designs or symbols
    may be woven into the hair and the corn row braids may not extend below the hairline.”

    Inmates with hair below shoulder length must “have the hair tied back in a ponytail at all times with a barrette, rubber band or other fastening device”.

  15. rhowan
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I found the Inmate Grooming Standards for the Department of Corrections in the state of New York. http://www.docs.state.ny.us/Directives/4914.pdf Interestingly long hair IS permitted in prison (theoretically for inmates of all races), but there’s a catch. Several actually.
    Every incoming inmate is required to have their hair cut to no more than 1 inch in length (and remove their facial hair) unless they have a court order against it or are a member of one of a pre-defined set of religious groups. After that they’re allowed to grow their hair long again. I rather suspect this started out as an attempt to reduce lice in prisons, something which (hopefully) isn’t as much of an issue these days.
    After that initial haircut they’re allowed to grow their hair long again, but there are a limited number of allowable hairstyles (see link above), and there are very specific restrictions on braided styles:
    “The only braids allowed are the corn row style. Corn row braids may only be woven close to
    the scalp in straight rows from the forehead to the back of the neck. No designs or symbols
    may be woven into the hair and the corn row braids may not extend below the hairline.”

    Inmates with hair below shoulder length must “have the hair tied back in a ponytail at all times with a barrette, rubber band or other fastening device”.

  16. The Flash
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Prisoners are supposed to be emasculated and have their identity undermined. If you leave prison the same person you went in as, you’re leaving prison as the-type-of-person-who-committed-a-crime-worth-being-thrown-in-prison-for. Assuming we shouldn’t just throw people in prison for retribution, but should aim for some sort of rehabilitative function, it’s important to express that his identity pre-incarceration is over, and he has to be a new man if he wants to rejoin society.
    Whether it’s right or not, the point of prison is to express that where you were a rebel, now you must submit to authority… and specifically the authority of the state. While we’ve carved out space for people to remain true to their religions while in prison, staying true to one’s “identity” is exactly what SHOULDN’T happen in prison.

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