Throughout the history of western civilization, long hair has been a symbol of many things: strength, beauty, singularity, sexuality and rebellion against authority to name a few. Think of Samson, Botticelli’s Venus, Rapunzel, Lady Godiva, the Beatles, hippies, Farah Fawcett and Jennifer Aniston - two women whose careers were launched largely on the basis of their luxuriant manes and iconic hairstyles. Short hair for men in our times has been traditionally associated with the military, law enforcement and conservatism; for women, it has been a symbol of liberation, athleticism, lesbianism and androgyny. Shorn hair is most often associated with treason, punishment and prisoners, which brings me to the case of Rodney Alcala, a convicted serial killer from California who has been extradited to New York to stand trial for the 1970’s murder of two women here.
Alcala is a 68 year old man who sports long gray curly hair, hanging below his shoulders, very much in the style of hippies and rock stars. He has been behind bars since 1979 and has spent the last two years on Death Row, convicted of strangling four young women and a 12 year old girl, after sexually abusing and torturing them. Prior to 1979, he had been imprisoned for a total of 4 and 1/2 years for various offenses including the attempted murder of another child , an 8 year old girl. He is the personification of evil but instead of appearing in court with hair consistent with the status of prisoner, he has been allowed the luxury of expressing his individuality with his striking long hair belying the fact that he is a sadistic killer in the custody of the state of California and now New York. Why is a serial killer allowed more freedom that the young men and women in the military who put their lives on the line in serving their country? What must the families of the vibrant young women and children whose lives he snuffed think when they see him saunter into court flaunting his uncut hair? Would he be allowed to choose the color and style of his prison jumpsuit? His hair is as distinctive a statement as the uniform he wears and it should be proclaiming that he has relinquished his own rights of individuality by having taken the lives of five individuals - possibly seven, and potentially even more than that.
When a prisoner enters jail, it is with the understanding thaat his body is effectively controlled by the authority of the penal system. They will determine the rules of hygiene, the clothing he wears and the activities he engages in. The state of California has clearly elected not to make an issue over hair and the state of New York is apparently going along with the same decision. It sends the wrong message to everyone and should be reconsidered. The families of five young women and two children shouldn’t have to look at the man who raped, tortured and murdered their daughters enjoying any distinctiveness whatsoever. The penal system shouldn’t be undermining its own exclusive authority by forfeiting the right to determine the appropriate hair length for all prisoners. Before he is eliminated by the state, a prisoner on Death Row should appear as indistinguishable from all other murderers as one rat is from another.
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