To Shave or Not to Shave … An Inmate’s Rights

By Lisa Soronen, Executive Director, State and Local Legal Center
The Supreme Court held unanimously in January in Holt v. Hobbs that an inmate’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Rights Act were violated when he was not allowed to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. This case will affect correctional institutions with no-beard policies and may provide lower court’s guidance in evaluating the act’s claims in the corrections and land use context.
Grooming policies at the Arkansas Department of Corrections prohibit inmates who do not have a particular dermatological condition from growing beards. Gregory Holt’s request to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim religious beliefs was denied.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Rights Act says the government may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion of an institutionalized person unless the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The Eighth Circuit held that the Arkansas Department of Corrections satisfied its burden of showing that the no-beards policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling security interests.
The court, in an opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, first concluded the lower court made three errors in concluding that the grooming policy didn’t substantially burden Holt’s religion. The fact that he had other means of practicing his religion, was “credited” by his religion for attempting to follow his beliefs, and that not all Muslims believe men must grow beards, do not matter in a Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Rights Act analysis.
While the court agreed that preventing the flow of contraband in its facilities and preventing prisoners from disguising their identities are compelling state interests, it concluded disallowing half-inch beards isn’t the least restrictive means of furthering prison safety and security.
The court described the department’s concern that prisoners may hide contraband in their beards as “hard to take seriously.” Only small items could be concealed, inmates could more easily conceal items in head hair, and beards can be searched. Photographing an inmate with and without a beard would solve the problem of an inmate changing his appearance to enter restricted areas, escape or evade apprehension upon escaping, the court said. And the fact that the department allows inmates to grow mustaches, head hair and quarter-inch beards for medical reasons, all of which could be shaved off at a moment’s notice, indicate security concerns raised by quickly changing appearance are not serious.
Also critical to the court’s analysis was the fact that most states and the federal government allow inmates to grow half-inch beards for any reason.
The court’s opinion in this case was partially a critique of the lower court opinions, which seemed to gloss over the requirements of Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Rights Act rather than carefully apply them, and partially a pragmatic view of security risks created by short beards: “Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a ½ inch beard—and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes. Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked.”
 
 
 

 

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