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.