Former inmate questions dreadlocks policy at Portsmouth jail

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — There is another controversy brewing in Portsmouth, but this time is centers around hair. Inmates with dreadlocks inside the city jail say they are treated differently than those who don’t.

“My hair is a part of me. Cutting my hair is like cutting off my hands,” said Brandon James. “My mother has dreads. My brother has dreads. I have cousins who have dreads, and my aunt has dreads.”

James is proud of his dreadlocks; he’s grown them since 2009. But he was recently faced with a surprising choice concerning them when he was booked into Portsmouth City Jail.

“A deputy asked me did I want to cut my hair,” James said. “I told him, ‘no.’ He said, ‘if you don’t cut your hair, you are going to go in the isolation block.’”

James, who was serving a 10-day jail sentence for driving on a suspended license, was not allowed to be housed in general population. He was in an isolated area with other inmates who had dreads.

“Why is this the only jail that segregates somebody with having hair?” James said. “What if it was my religion? There was a guy who was locked up. He was a Rastafarian. He had his dreads almost 20 years.”

“They are not persecuted because they have dreads, but they are put in a separate section,” said Captain Lee Cherry, with the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Office.

10 On Your Side asked Cherry about the treatment of inmates with dreadlocks. He said it comes down to health and safety.

“Once they put them in, they are hard to keep clean,” Cherry said. “A jail environment is totally different than what you have in your home, so we are looking at a sanitary condition. We are looking also at with those dreads that somebody could put something in there.”

Portsmouth officials say they are just following protocols set up by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

10 On Your Side talked with deputies in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Hampton. We were told they thoroughly search dreadlocks and then place inmates in general population. The Hampton Roads Regional Jail says it does the same thing.

James feels as if his rights were violated at Portsmouth City Jail, and he wants to see the dreadlocks policy change.

“It’s not right,” James said. “That’s the point blank period. It’s not right.”

“If he didn’t break the law, he wouldn’t have ended up in jail. He wouldn’t have this problem,” Cherry said. “We didn’t violate his rights. He didn’t like where he was housed. We’re not responsible for him going to jail.”

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