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Indian man with long hair wins release from prison
Thursday, May 27, 2004

A California Indian man who refused to cut his waist-length hair while in prison was ordered released on Wednesday.

Billy Soza Warsoldier, 55, said state corrections officials punished him for refusing to obey a policy that restricts hair length on males to 3 inches. He was denied contact with family and other privileges, he alleged in a federal lawsuit.

A federal judge last month ruled against Warsoldier's request for release. The decision enabled prison officials to keep him locked up past his May 21 release date for violating the policy.

But in a brief order yesterday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state Department of Corrections to stop enforcing its policy against Warsoldier. Judges William C. Canby and Richard A. Paez also ordered the state to restore Warsoldier's "good time credits."

The effect was that Warsoldier was freed from a state correctional facility, where had finished his 19-month sentence for driving under the influence and possession of weapons, both felonies. Without the reprieve, he might have had to stay in jail until July 7 at the earliest.

"We're very gratified by the court's decision," Warsoldier's lawyer, Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union, said yesterday "Delaying Mr. Warsoldier's release for even one day as punishment for his adherence to his faith was a gross violation of his rights. We'll continue to fight this unjust policy until no inmate is made to suffer for practicing his religion."

Warsoldier, a member of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, said cutting his hair was an affront to his Cahuilla and Apache heritage. He said he has cut his hair only once in more than 30 years -- on the death of his father in 1980.

"I don't understand why I'm being punished for practicing my faith," he said in late March when his case was filed. "My tradition tells me that if I cut my hair, I may face taunting and ridicule from deceased members of my tribe. I would prefer to take the state's punishment than violate my faith."

The state implemented its hair policy in 1997. Officials say long hair can be used to hide weapons and as a disguise.

Warsoldier said his long hair symbolizes strength and wisdom. A graduate of several art schools, including the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, he calls himself "not your average savage."

Warsoldier's battle against the prison regulations will continue in the court system. The 9th Circuit has expedited the case and ordered briefs to be submitted in the next two weeks.

Relevant Links:
Bill Soza Warsoldier -
ACLU of Southern California -

Related Stories:
Indian prisoner in Calif. ordered not to contract press (04/09)
Native prisoner claims punishment for long hair (4/1)

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