Ohio prison guard fights for religious freedom

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CORNING, Ohio - In Perry County, a Shoshone-Bannock Indian is fighting a battle most Native Americans & indeed most Americans believe was decided in the '60s, or, at the latest, the '70s.

Wendell Humphrey, a correction officer at the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, says he has been fighting a battle over the length of his hair for three years. Humphrey, a sun dancer, embraces the spiritual practice known as Canku Wakan: walking the Red Road. The Native American belief system includes wearing one's hair in the traditional manner.

This free exercise of Humphrey's religion has run smack into Ohio rules regulating the appearance of its corrections officers. In 1993, the state began promoting a policy of having its uniformed officers adhere to a strict code of personal appearance. For men, this means short hair.

"But not as a matter of hygiene," the state argues, it requires "short hair to provide for uniformity of appearance."

Humphrey has no argument with his employer's desire that everyone look alike. For the last 10 years the ex-Marine has tucked his hair underneath his baseball-style cap an optional feature of his uniform and gone to work. If anything, Humphrey argues, he has always taken pride in his appearance and is careful to be well groomed.

Humphrey also argues there are corrections officers in the system with long hair. "It's all set up in a military way, with the men wearing short hair. But the women there, who do the same job I do, they can have long hair. So it's not a matter of security or anything."

The state is not contesting Humphrey's record as an employee. By all accounts, on both sides, the 13-year corrections officer's record has been exemplary. His performance evaluations repeatedly have been positive; including every one since the dispute began. He even received Correction Officer of the Year honors.

Elisa Young, a friend and supporter, revealed the state, in the past, called on the prison guard for special duty. "Seven years ago there were serious prison riots in Lucasville, Ohio, at their correctional facility. Wendell was specifically recruited to be a part of the SWAT team. He had long hair at that point. It seems like if it ever were going to be an issue, that would have been the time and place. Yet he was given an award for exemplary service as a SWAT team member at that time. (Wendell) probably won't mention that because he never likes to brag."

The 49-year-old Humphrey said the riot was a pretty tense situation. "It took place over 11 days and involved more than 200 prisoners."

Humphrey continued on his prison SWAT team until a back injury forced him to resign.

The state claims if Humphrey is allowed to be an exception to the policy, then other officers will seek the same privilege.In response, Humphrey cites a recent survey of the 12,000 correction officers in Ohio that revealed only 16 of them would begin to wear long hair.

On April 15, 1998, Humphrey and his lawyer, Kathleen Trafford, won the first of three stages of their legal battle. However the state appealed the ruling.

"It's an awful lot of money the state of Ohio is spending to win this thing," Humphrey said. Fortunately, although his lawyer is from a prestigious Columbus law firm, she has taken the case pro bono.

Trafford said the grooming policy has been on the books since the early 90s. "When it was first enacted there was some resistance to it, including the unions that represent the prison guards. The state reached an accommodation with these people, including Wendell. When they first tried to enforce it in the early 90s, they agreed with Wendell that he could tuck his hair up under his cap. They were trying to be sensitive to these religious objections."

She said Humphrey tried to be accommodating, adding that "the warden, Janis Lane, testified he was a model employee, that this was the only issue they had with Wendell."

In 1996 there was a change in the leadership at the Department of Corrections. The new director, Reginald Wilkins, made it an early priority to enforce the letter of the departments grooming policy, she said. Because an early challenge to the policy on religious grounds, Blaken vs Ohio Dept. of Corrections, lost in federal court, the state put out a directive to all its wardens that said "enforce this without exception."

Humphrey's suit was filed in state court to avoid that federal ruling and to take advantage of stricter state guidelines pertaining to protection of religious expression.

Citing safety reasons, a three-judge panel ruled against Humphrey on the state's appeal. The case is now pending before the Ohio Supreme Court.

While the case is beginning to attract national attention, initially Humphrey was alone in his legal struggle. Over time, Humphrey said, this changed. "No one would help me, but then things fell into place after I went into the sweat lodge and did a lot of praying. Since then, things have started coming my way."

Two television stations and five newspapers have since interviewed Humphrey.

The Shoshone-Bannock is originally from Fort Hall, Idaho, but moved to Ohio immediately after getting out of the Marine Corp 25 years ago.

"It's been a long fight. I'm doing it for me, but I'm also doing it for generations to come, so they won't have to fight this battle."