By Christopher Zoukis

Concluding a case started over 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court early this month refused to accept an appeal in a lawsuit filed by Native American prisoners in Alabama, who argued hair length rules set by the state’s Department of Corrections infringed their religious beliefs and practices.

In declining to hear arguments on Knight v. Thompson, the high court let stand an August 2015 ruling by a federal appeals court in Atlanta leaving Alabama’s corrections system free to require male inmates’ hair be trimmed to keep it “off neck and ears.”

The plaintiffs brought suit in federal court in November 1993, claiming the state’s no-exceptions ban on long hair violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed earlier that year to minimize the burden of state and federal laws on citizens’ religious practices. They offered expert testimony Native American religious beliefs called for leaving their hair uncut.

State corrections officials countered long hair poses a security risk, by providing a hiding place for weapons or other contraband, and making it easier for escaping inmates to make quick alterations in their appearance. State officials also noted long hair could mask health problems or pose hygiene risks (even offering evidence a nest of black widow spiders had been found in one inmate’s dreadlocks). The trial court and the appeals court sided with the state, finding it had proved its grooming policies addressed hygiene and security concerns.

The native American plaintiffs later refiled their suit, this time using the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the replacement law Congress devised after RFRA was partially invalidated by another Supreme Court decision. Under the RLUIPA, prison policies limiting religious-based practices must serve legitimate purposes and be no more restrictive than necessary. Once again, the appellate court upheld Alabama’s grooming rules.

The appellate court got the case back once more, after the Supreme Court last year in Holt v. Hobbs unanimously struck down as a RLUIPA violation an Arkansas prison rule banning all beards. In that case, a Muslim inmate wanted a short (half-inch long) beard. The decision turned on the state’s failure to offer concrete evidence the religious observance would pose any threat to safety, health, or order in correctional facilities.

But again, the appeals court found Alabama’s restrictions consistent with RLUIPA and amply supported by evidence of a legitimate governmental need. The appeals court rejected the argument that, because fewer than a dozen states prohibit long hair, Alabama’s rule was needlessly restrictive.

Despite the Supreme Court’s rebuff to the Alabama prisoners’ lawsuit, it may have to revisit the area again. The same day the high court turned down the Knight v. Thompson appeal, a federal appeals court in New Orleans applied the RLUIPA to strike down grooming and headgear rules used by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Even though the Muslim inmate sought to have a 4” beard and wear an African-style kufi brimless cap, that court extended the Holt case to find Texas had not shown it needed to limit beards to a short fringe. The Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights sided with the prisoners challenging grooming codes in the Alabama, Arkansas and Texas cases.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).