Virginia's prison inmates must shave off their beards, trim their mustaches and cut their hair short or face punishments that include solitary confinement, according to a new grooming policy that state officials announced yesterday.

The state prison system gave inmates until Dec. 15 to comply with the new policy, which requires that male prisoners have hair neatly "cut above the shirt collar and around the ears." The policy also limits the size of sideburns, mustaches and fingernails and specifically prohibits beards, dyed hair, braids, plaits, cornrows, ponytails, buns, mohawks, partially shaved heads and designs cut into hair.

Woman are permitted to wear hair down to their shoulders, with one or two braids or ponytails. But dyed hair, dreadlocks, cornrows and designs violate the new rules.

Virginia officials said beards and long hair allow prisoners to hide contraband such as drugs and weapons, and poor grooming can be a health hazard. They cited no single incident as prompting the new policy but said they once found an ice pick in one inmate's hair and the nest of a black widow spider in another's.

The key function of the grooming policy, said Corrections Director Ronald J. Angelone, is to help identify prisoners, who through poor grooming often stop resembling their mug shots soon after arriving at prison, making a successful escape easier.

"It's the three most important things--health, security and safety--that we're trying to get at," Angelone said.

The policy immediately came under fire from civil libertarians. Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his office would look for ways to challenge the new policy in court.

"This policy has nothing to do with security but everything to do with a persistent effort by correctional officials to dehumanize inmates," Willis said. "This is what the Virginia Department of Corrections has been doing for six years, a series of policies that gradually strip prisoners of their humanity."

Willis acknowledged that a court challenge against the policy would be hard to win. Last year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond refused to strike down a similar grooming policy in South Carolina prisons. Angelone said such policies are common around the nation.

"The Fourth Circuit agrees with the department that security is paramount rather than personal expression," Angelone said.

The Virginia prison system has 42 facilities and 32,000 inmates. New inmates will get a haircut and a shave upon arrival, but existing ones who refuse to comply with the policy will face punishment, losing telephone privileges and visitation rights before facing solitary confinement. Multiple violations could result in up to 15 days in solitary confinement.

The only exception to the new grooming policy will be by doctor's order. But even inmates with a certified "no shave" order must keep facial hair no longer than one-half inch.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed concern yesterday about the ban on beards, which many Muslims wear as a sign of faith. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said the Washington-based group attempted to fight such a ban in the California prison system but met with little success.

"Normal civil rights and religious rights don't apply in prison settings," he said, "so it's much more difficult to challenge on a religious accommodation basis."