Should prisoners be allowed to have beards based on religious grounds?
March 12, 2014
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
In a handwritten petition, a prisoner in the Arkansas prison system asked the Supreme Court to decide a hairy issue, whether prisoners should be able to wear beards in accordance with their religious beliefs. The court agreed to hear the case, Holt v. Hobbs, in the fall.
The petitioner, Gregory Holt, who goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad, converted to Islam and wished to grow a beard in accordance with his religious belief that “Muslim males are not to shave their beards.” Holt is serving a life sentence for domestic violence in the Arkansas state prison system, which does not allow beards, not even one that is a half-inch long, which Holt is seeking.
The Arkansas prison system does not allow beards for many reasons. Long beards can be used to hide contraband when prisoners visit their families and lawyers. And if an inmate who has a beard escapes, a quick shave would allow him to drastically change his appearance, giving him more time to evade the authorities.
Prison officials told the justices that everything from cellphone SIM cards to darts could be hidden in a half-inch beard. Officials also said they should not be responsible for monitoring the lengths of prisoners’ beards.
Holt didn’t agree with the policy, so he filled out by hand a writ certiorari in forma pauperis, which allowed him to petition the court without paying the fees since he could not afford them.
Decades ago, another handwritten petition changed the legal system. Clarence Gideon’s handwritten letter made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel was essential to a fair trial and applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
Holt’s handwritten petition makes several arguments. First, it says that the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ no-beard rule violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 1993 law that forbids prisons from imposing burdens that keep inmates from practicing their religion unless there is a compelling reason. Holt argues that a half-inch beard would not drastically change a person’s appearance and that it would not be a security issue.
Additionally, Holt says that the no-beard rule violates his First Amendment right to practice religion freely. Holt also contends that lower courts have given conflicting rulings on state grooming laws based on religion and that the Supreme Court must decide the issue.
Update: On Jan. 20, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state of Arkansas must allow a Muslim inmate to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his religion. Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that prison systems in most states and the federal system allow prisoners to grow beards. He added that the argument that security "would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously."
What do you think?
How should the Supreme Court rule in Holt v. Hobbs? Does the no-beard policy violate a prisoner’s First Amendment right to practice his religion freely? Do beards pose a security and hygiene risk? How should the government weigh the need for security with the need to protect the constitutional rights of the prisoners? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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