Fired guards sue Delco prison over grooming rules

Three former prison guards have sued the Delaware County prison, alleging religious, sexual, and racial discrimination after they were fired for not cutting their hair, which they say their religion forbids.

Nigel LeBlanc, Eugene Briggs and Zayid Bolds, all of Philadelphia, are followers of the Rastafarian movement, which prohibits cutting hair on the head, including facial hair, according to their lawsuit. They were asked to choose between their jobs and their religion, said Jennifer L. Zegel, attorney for the men.

The prison is run by the New Jersey-based Community Education Centers (CEC), which took over from GEO Group on Jan. 1, 2009. The men were fired seven days later for failure to comply with the company's grooming policy.

A CEC spokesman said company officials would not comment, citing pending litigation. A man answering prison Superintendent John Reilly's office phone said Reilly was unavailable and hung up. Reached on vacation, Robert DiOrio, the solicitor for the prison board, said the board had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

CEC's grooming policy for male officers states that "hair shall be neatly combed and clean at all times. Hair length shall not extend beyond the collar. Shall be clean-shaven." For female officers, the policy states, "Hair that extends beyond the collar shall be pulled up in a bun at all times."

Zegel, of Choi & Associates of Elkins Park, said her clients had always tied their hair up in buns above their collars.

"What we have is different standards for men and women," Zegel said.

While employed by GEO Group, her clients had experienced some discrimination as a result of having long hair, she said. All three, however, received satisfactory performance reviews.

"Our position is that the prison and CEC were aware of my clients' religious beliefs," Zegel said. The men, she said, had sent a letter to CEC "clearly outlining" their beliefs, she said.

Only one of the men has found part-time work since being dismissed, Zegel said. Her clients will ask for compensation for lost wages and benefits, and other damages, she said.

The state Department of Corrections and the Montgomery County prison, run by the county, have similar grooming policies. Neither permits hair below the collar for men. For women, hair must be pinned so as not to touch the collar.

Montgomery County allows trimmed mustaches but not beards, while state corrections officers can have "neatly trimmed" facial hair.


Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.