PROVIDENCE – A Westerly man being held at the Adult Correctional Institutions is accusing corrections officials of violating his rights to religious freedom by repeatedly disciplining him for wearing a pagan hairstyle.
Christopher Banks, 24, who is serving time after admitting to abusing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter, has filed a federal lawsuit asking the court to vacate sanctions he’s received for wearing his hair long on top and shaved on the sides, in keeping with Viking warriors. He also seeks the restoration of good time he’s lost, he says, for exercising his religious rights.
Banks argues in U.S. District Court that he has worn his hair in this style for years so he can communicate with the pagan gods and maintain their beliefs and practices.
But, he said, he has received multiple bookings and sanctions over accusations by corrections officials that he is maintaining “an extreme hairstyle.” As a result, he has lost privileges and good time, a policy in which days are shaved off a person’s prison term for good behavior.
The state Department of Corrections admitted to sanctioning Banks and upholding the discipline on appeal, but otherwise denied the allegations in its response.
Banks names as defendants Captain Walter Duffy, Acting Deputy Warden Rachel Bray, Grievance Coordinator Billie Jo Gallagher, and Lt. Bruce Oden.
In 2018, Banks pleaded no contest to second-degree child abuse for abusing his girlfriend’s daughter, leaving the child with visible injuries on her head, according to police. Superior Court Judge Melanie Wilk Thunberg sentenced him to 10 years in prison, with seven to serve, for his crime, court records show. He is now living in the high-security unit.
He alleges that he has been wrongly disciplined for shaving the sides of his head and that as such he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs and practices. He argues that the department lacks a policy governing hairstyles in the prison.
In one incident, in 2020, corrections officers sanctioned him for persuading the prison barber to give him “an extreme hairstyle” by saying he had permission from Bray, who denied giving consent, a booking sheet filed with the court shows.
In another, officers said he shaved his head with a razor or nail clippers while in his cell and then disposed of the hair in an unknown manner.
Viking hairstyles are known for long hair on the top and along the back of the head with shaved sides, or an undercut, intended to convey strength and masculinity.
The court has denied Banks’ request to have a lawyer appointed in the case.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Westerly man claims RI prison violates his right to pagan hairstyle