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Wednesday, Feb 19 2014 05:52 PM

Lawsuit: Prison guard harassed over Rastafarian dreadlocks, beard

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    By Craig Kohlruss/ The Fresno Bee

    Solomon Stanley is a Rastafarian who wears his hair in dreadlocks. The ex-prison guard has filed suit against North Kern State Prison.

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BY PABLO LOPEZ Fresno Bee

Solomon Stanley says he never thought his Rastafari religion -- which mandates followers to wear dreadlocks and a beard -- would cause him problems as a prison guard.

"It's not a radical religion," he says. "We promote peace."

But his refusal to cut his hair and beard has generated two lawsuits -- one in federal court in Fresno and another in Fresno County Superior Court -- that accuse prison officials in Delano of religious harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

In his lawsuits, Stanley, 47, an ex-prison guard, contends North Kern State Prison officials gave him a religious exemption in 2003 to wear long dreadlocks and a beard.

But when a new command unit took over in 2008, Stanley says, his supervisors dispatched prison guards "to do their dirty work." They called him "Bob Marley" and "Rastaman" and badgered him to cut his hair. When he complained, they changed his job duties.

Stanley says the alleged harassment got so bad that he received a medical discharge in December 2010 because of stress.

Stanley, who lives in Visalia, is seeking $1 million in lost wages and damages for emotional distress.

North Kern prison officials could not comment because the case is in litigation, spokesman Lt. George Becerra says.

But in court papers, attorneys Bart Hightower and Connie Broussard of the Attorney General's Office, which represents North Kern prison officials, deny Stanley's allegations.

In general, Rastafarians believe in God, whom they call Jah, and their beliefs are based in Judaism and Christianity with an emphasis on the Old Testament and prophecies in the Book of Revelation.

Although many Rastafarians indulge in the religious use of marijuana, Stanley says that practice is optional and he doesn't smoke marijuana.

Court documents spell out the dispute:

Stanley was hired as a prison guard by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 1991. He abided by the CDCR requirements that he keep his hair shorter than the top of his shirt collar and no beard.

"It's a safety issue," CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa said in a recent interview. "The last thing you would want is for an inmate to grab a guard's hair."

Sessa said female guards have to follow the same grooming standards.

After eight years on the job, Stanley joined the Rastafari religion and began to grow out his hair per religious doctrine.

He says his appearance didn't become an issue until February 2003, when supervisors asked him about his dreadlocks. He says he explained that the dreadlocks were part of his religion, and prison officials asked him to submit proof of his religion from a religious leader, which he did in April 2003, court records state.

Two months later, prison officials informed Stanley through a memo that his request was being considered. "Pending this decision, you may continue wearing your hair in dreadlocks," according to the memo.

Two years passed before Stanley began growing a beard. In December 2008, prison officials issued a memo asking guards with facial hair to submit a doctor's note verifying that the beard was needed to deal with a skin irritation or disorder. That medical exemption for facial hair is the only way around the CDCR grooming rules, Sessa said.

Associate Warden Connie Gibson asked Stanley about his dreadlocks and beard, and Stanley showed Gibson the 2003 memo that had given him the OK to wear both.

Stanley says Gibson agreed with him, but Capt. Vince Adams ordered Stanley to abide by the department's grooming standards. Stanley says Adams' order surprised him because no one had said anything -- nor had he received anymore memos -- about his dreadlocks or beard since he received the 2003 approval.

Stanley filed a complaint in January 2009 with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission alleging discrimination based on religion.

Stanley says his EEOC complaint triggered harassment by Adams and others, including name-calling and cursing. The alleged emotional abuse caused him to retire early, he says.

"This was my dream job," says Stanley, who made about $6,400 a month as a prison guard. He said he makes half that amount on disability.

As a kid growing up in Miami, Stanley says, he went to a Christian church with his mother.

After high school, he joined the Navy and was a radioman from 1986 to 1990.

As a prison guard, he says, he received good evaluations up until supervisors complained about his dreadlocks and beard.

Stanley says his legal fight already has cost him about $70,000, largely because he is suing in two courts (a workplace suit in state court and a civil rights suit in federal court) and because the prison's attorneys have been successful in delaying the trials to this summer.

"My religion taught me to promote peace among plants, animals and people," he says. "But I have to fight to get justice."

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