Client story: Religious freedoms in prison


In 2005, Tinika Hill’s prison journey began. “The negative energy was constant,” she says. In 2008, she converted to Rastafarianism. Her faith helped transform her own consciousness and put her on a positive path.  A fundamental tenet of the Rastafarian religion is that hair be worn in dreadlocks and cutting it is forbidden. Although the prison system did not typically allow inmates to wear their hair in dreadlocks, Tinika was granted a religious accommodation and permitted to grow her hair in this style for over three years.

Tinika Hill
Tinika Hill

In late 2011, a new warden at the prison told Tinika that she would have to cut her hair.  If she refused to do so voluntarily, then prison staff would forcibly hold her down and cut it.  Despite her previously granted religious accommodation, the warden arbitrarily revoked it and placed Tinika in solitary confinement for her refusal to cut her hair.

“It was devastating what they were trying to do,” Tinika says.  Tinika’s mother contacted OJPC and the Human Rights in Prison Project agreed to represent her. OJPC quickly worked with Tinika to file a federal lawsuit against the warden and the case proceeded to court.

In the midst of litigation, the prison offered Tinika a deal. She could keep her hair on the condition that she spend the remaining three months of her sentence in solitary confinement. For Tinika, the choice was excruciating. We went over every possible outcome with her and made it clear that we would fight for her no matter what she wanted to do. Tinika chose to accept the prison’s offer and spent a total of four months in segregation.

Segregation was difficult, but through her choice, she preserved her spiritual practice.  “If it wasn’t for my faith, I would have broken a long time ago,” she says. In the hole, prison staff continually antagonized her. “They treated me like I was trash,” she says, but her prayer got her through.  “I didn’t deserve that,” she says. “It was unjust. They try to take your soul, but we won. I am blessed.”  Tinika Hill was released from prison in May 2012, with her dreadlocks intact and her commitment to her faith stronger than ever.

To OJPC, Tinika says, “You were my shield.  It will never be forgotten. It came out of nowhere. It was strong, powerful, and you knew what you were talking about. It was unlike anything I or the people around me had seen.”

Life after prison is challenging for Tinika.  But when she remembers OJPC’s work, she says, “I remember I am worth something. I am somebody.”