updated 5/27/2004 8:11:24 AM ET 2004-05-27T12:11:24

A federal appeals court has ordered the release of an American Indian prison inmate whose sentence was extended because he refused to cut his hair.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Billy Soza Warsoldier, a member of the Cahuilla tribe, whose faith prohibits him from cutting his hair except if someone in his family dies, said Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the Department of Corrections on the inmate’s behalf.

“We’re very gratified by the court’s decision,” Wizner said Wednesday. “Delaying Mr. Warsoldier’s release for even one day as punishment for his adherence to his faith was a gross violation of his rights.”

Warsoldier, 55, who was serving a 19-month sentence for drunken driving, had challenged the grooming policy at Adelanto Community Correctional Facility by refusing to comply with a rule restricting hair length on male inmates to 3 inches.

Since 1971, Warsoldier has cut his hair just once — when his father died in 1980.

Warsoldier had been scheduled for release May 21 but was given additional time after a lower court ruled he was violating the grooming policy.

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