When William Chance's parents died, in 2008 and 2009, he wanted to honor them properly. As a practitioner of a pan-Native American faith derived from the tribes of the Great Plains -- his grandmother was a Cheyenne from Montana -- this required a lock of their hair about the thickness of pencil lead, which he would keep for a year as part of the keeping of souls ritual.
There was only one problem. Chance is on year 22 of a 64-year prison sentence. He was convicted in Denton County in 1992 of aggravated sexual assault and indecency with a child.
Chance is housed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Michael Unit, which is designated to house Native American believers. Chance and 85 or so of his fellow inmates organize and participate in various rituals.
But a tiny hair lock was a bridge too far for state prison officials. They denied Chance's request on the grounds that the hair locks would come from family members, not an approved vendor, and therefore might be used to smuggle in drugs or other contraband.
"Any time we open the door for individuals to send items in, it breaches the security of our institution, and that is our number one mission, security and public safety," Robert "Jay" Eason, a Michael Unit official, testified. "I mean, that is what we do."
Chance was crushed. "The hair is just the connection to their physical spirit," Chance explained to The Associated Press. "This is something that our family has always done. The fact I'm not allowed to do that, it makes me feel bad.
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"Sometimes I feel haunted, like I'm letting them down, and I realize my life in the past has been a pretty big disappointment for them."
Chance sued TDCJ in 2011 but was unsuccessful. A district judged sided firmly with the state and dismissed the claims. He found a more sympathetic audience in a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Several weeks ago, they overturned the lower court's decision on the hair.
The appellate judges make the obvious observation that a lock of hair, whether or not it comes from an approved vendor, is "benign." They also conclude that it's possible that denying Chance access to the hair places an unreasonable burden on the practice of his religion. There are, they write, "a number of less restrictive alternatives to an outright ban, including restricting the lock of hair to the cell, washing it, inspecting it or restricting its size." In the end, they toss the matter to district court. A trial over the hair issue is set for January.
The judges are less receptive to Chance's requests to participate in a communal peace-pipe ceremony (it could transmit disease and would require extra security to make sure the tobacco didn't find its way into the general population) or mandate that he be allowed to hold various ceremonies twice per month.