Hair and Prison in Nineteenth Century Law

Professor Chris Green points me toward a fascinating case decided by Justice Stephen Field in 1879 when he rode circuit in the District of California–Ho Ah Kow v. Nunan–also involving hair and prison. The case concerns a Chinese man who was imprisoned after he failed to pay a fine for violating a law limiting the number of people who could sleep in spaces of certain designated dimensions. While in prison, the man’s queue (a long braid worn on the back of the head) was cut off by the sheriff of the prison. The plaintiff claimed that the cutting off of his queue was a disgrace, a violation of his religious rights, and “is attended…with misfortune and suffering after death.” The sheriff defended on the ground that a San Francisco city ordinance required that every male prisoner’s hair must be “cut or clipped to an uniform length of one inch from the scalp thereof.” The plaintiff argued that the City lacked the authority to enact the ordinance and that the ordinance imposed “a degrading and cruel punishment upon a class of persons who are entitled, alike with all other persons within the jurisdiction of the United States, to the equal protection of the laws.”

The court agreed with the plaintiff. This particular so-called “queue ordinance” was specifically targeted against Chinese people (the opinion comments on the hostility of Californians toward the Chinese at the time) and enforced exclusively against them, notwithstanding the ordinance’s neutral and generally applicable language. The court also noted the importance of the burdensome effects of an ostensibly neutral and generally applicable law: “Many illustrations might be given where ordinances, general in their terms, would operate only upon a special class, or upon a class, with exceptional severity, and thus incur the odium and be subject to the legal objection of intended hostile legislation against them.” The ordinance was struck down on this ground alone.

But the court’s remarks about the relationship between hair-length regulations and various types of interests that the prison might advance are also worth thinking about:

The cutting off the hair of every male person within an inch of his scalp, on his arrival at the jail, was not intended and cannot be maintained as a measure of discipline or as a sanitary regulation. The act by itself has no tendency to promote discipline, and can only be a measure of health in exceptional cases. Had the ordinance contemplated a mere sanitary regulation it would have been limited to such cases and made applicable to females as well as to males, and to persons awaiting trial as well as to persons under conviction. The close cutting of the hair which is practiced upon inmates of the state penitentiary, like dressing them in striped clothing, is partly to distinguish them from others, and thus prevent their escape and facilitate their recapture. They are measures of precaution, as well as parts of a general system of treatment prescribed by the directors of the penitentiary under the authority of the state, for parties convicted of and imprisoned for felonies. Nothing of the kind is prescribed or would be tolerated with respect to persons confined in a county jail for simple misdemeanors, most of which are not of a very grave character. For the discipline or detention of the plaintiff in this case, who had the option of paying a fine of ten dollars, or of being imprisoned for five days, no such clipping of the hair was required. It was done to add to the severity of his punishment….

The claim, however, put forth that the measure was prescribed as one of health is notoriously a mere pretense. A treatment to which disgrace is attached, and which is not adopted as a means of security against the escape of the prisoner, but merely to aggravate the severity of his confinement, can only be regarded as a punishment additional to that fixed by the sentence. If adopted in consequence of the sentence it is punishment in addition to that imposed by the court; if adopted without regard to the sentence it is wanton cruelty.

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