(TENNESSEE COLONY, Texas) -- William Chance, 57, wants locks of his deceased parents’ hair not as a memento but to complete a Native American tradition of mourning called keeping of the souls.
A prisoner in East Texas’ Michael Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas, Chance has sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the right to claim the hair for religious purposes.
Prison authorities claim getting the hair could pose a security risk, and, citing prison policy, say only items from approved vendors could be brought into the prison. Chance claims they are violating his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit on Chance’s behalf in June 2011, listing a variety of grievances that Chance had accumulated while incarcerated.
“He wrote us a letter that had a number of complaints,” said Brian McGiverin, Chance’s attorney. “He told us that he and other Native Americans had been practicing certain religious practices for over 10 years, and that suddenly the prison unilaterally decided that they couldn’t practice their religion, without any apparent reason.”
Although the claims were initially dismissed, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state had been wrong to deny Chance’s request for the hair, and sent it back for review. It ruled that Chances other requests, including a smoking ceremony that called for inmates to share a pipe, which it said could possibly spread disease, had been rightly denied.
The appeals court will rule in January as to whether Chance can receive his parents’ hair. McGiverin expressed confidence in the way the court would rule.
When ABC News called the East Texas’ Michael Unit for comment on the case, Director of Public Information Jason Clark said he could not comment on pending litigation.
“The main concern has primarily been of security,” said McGiverin. “For this particular issue, their concerns are far-fetched at this point. The other concern, that someone might smuggle in drugs – well, we’ve said from day one that we’d be OK for them to take a small portion of the hair and test it to make sure it’s OK.”
Chance, who is of Cheyenne descent, was convicted of aggravated sexual assault in 1992. His parents died in 2008 and 2009, while Chance was serving a 64-year-sentence.
For now, his brother has the hair in safekeeping.
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