POST WRITTEN BY: Michael B. Mushlin, Professor of Law at Pace Law School, Scholar, and Renowned Expert on Prisoners’ Rights.
Just a few days ago a rare, if not unprecedented, event occurred: the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of a prisoner. The case, Holt v. Hobbs, was an Arkansas prisoner’s challenge to a state prison policy that forbade him from growing a beard. Holt, who is Muslim, asserted that his religion requires that he grow a beard of at least a half- inch. His request to grow a beard was denied because of a prison rule that prohibited inmates, aside from prisoners with medical problems, from growing beards of any length. Holt sought an exemption for himself on religious grounds. When the prison denied this exemption he sued.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Alito, upheld Holt’s right to grow a beard over the strong objections of prison officials who insisted that the no beard rule was essential to the security of the institution. The Court subjected the prison officials’ security arguments to close scrutiny. It ruled that it was “hard to take seriously” the state’s argument the rule was needed to prevent Holt from hiding weapons in his beard. It is impossible to hide most items in a beard so small and even small items could be detected by running a comb through Holt’s beard. Defendant’s argument that the no beard rule is needed to prevent inmates from changing their appearance thereby avoiding detection if they escape was similarly found to be without merit. This danger could be easily prevented by photographing the inmate without the beard and then later with the beard. The fact that the prison allowed prisoners with skin problems to grow quarter-inch beards also demonstrated that some facial hair on prisoners was not a serious security problem. In addition the Court emphasized, the “vast majority” of other states and the federal government permit inmates to grow at least a half-inch beards.
This ruling, which was based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RILUPA) 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), was not a constitutional decision. Instead it was based on Congress’ direction that a prisoner’s sincere claim to practice religion can only be burdened when the prison has a compelling state interest in a rule that restricts the prisoner’s religious practice and when the prison rule burdening religion is the least restrictive means of advancing its interest. Nevertheless, the Holt decision indicates that the Supreme Court will not always simply defer to prison officials when they proclaim – as they often do – that security needs require diminution of prisoners’ rights. Whether this signals that the Court will now begin to give meaningful review to prisoners’ claims that are not based on religious liberty rights remains to be seen. But the decision gives some cautious cause for hope that a new day is dawning for prisoners’ rights.
- Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827, __ U.S. __ (Jan. 20, 2015).
- Eugene Volokh, Holt v. Hobbs: Unanimous Victory for Muslim Prisoner in Religious Rights Cases, The Washington Post (Jan. 20, 2015).
- Holt v. Hobbs, ACLU (Jan. 20, 2015).
- Adam Liptak, Ban on Prison Beards Violates Muslim Rights, Supreme Court Says, The New York Times (Jan. 20, 2015).
- Jesse Wegman, A Prisoner and His Beard Win at the Supreme Court, The New York Times (Jan. 20, 2015).