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Alabama DOC Short Hair Policy Does Not Violate RLUIPA

Alabama DOC Short Hair Policy Does Not Violate RLUIPA

by David M. Reutter

The Eleventh Circuit held in July 2013 that an Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) policy requiring prisoners to maintain short hair does not violate their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The appellate ruling was entered in a lawsuit initially filed in November 1993; it was the third time the case had come before the Court of Appeals. The suit, filed by Native American ADOC prisoners, was on appeal following a bench trial in which the district court ruled in favor of the ADOC’s hair-length policy.

The Court of Appeals noted there was no dispute that the policy substantially burdens the religious exercise of Native American prisoners. It was also beyond dispute that the ADOC has compelling interests in security, discipline and hygiene within state prisons, and in the public’s safety in the event of escapes if prisoners could subsequently alter their appearance by cutting their hair.

The district court’s decision credited the ADOC’s witnesses who testified as to how the hair-length policy addresses the concerns of prison officials. Alternatives such as exempting Native American prisoners from hair cuts, requiring prisoners to search their own long hair and using a computer program to manipulate prisoners’ appearances to create pictures of what they would look like with short hair did not eliminate those concerns.

While the practices of other prison systems were relevant, the Eleventh Circuit said they were not controlling. “The ADOC has shown that its departure from the practices of other jurisdictions stems not from a stubborn refusal to accept a workable alternative, but rather a calculated decision not to absorb the added risks that its fellow institutions have chosen to tolerate,” wrote the appellate court. “This cannot amount to a RLUIPA violation.”

The fact that hair length standards for male and female prisoners differed also was unavailing, as the district court noted that male prisoners pose a greater threat than female prisoners. “RLUIPA does not require the ADOC to enforce a sex-blind hair length policy,” the Court of Appeals held. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.

The plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2014, which remains pending. See: Knight v. Thompson, 723 F.3d 1275 (11th Cir. 2013).


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Related legal case

Knight v. Thompson