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Fifth Circuit Holds Texas Prisoner Has Right to Grow “Fist-Length” Beard

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015) [PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50], the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) changed its grooming policy on August 1, 2015. The new policy allows prisoners to grow beards for religious reasons up to one-half inch long; however, one prisoner had already received a judgment permitting him to wear a “fist-length” beard four inches long, which was affirmed on appeal.

In March 2009, Texas state prisoner David Rasheed Ali filed suit in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging his Muslim religious faith required that he wear a white knit kufi (a brimless hat traditionally worn in parts of Africa) throughout the prison instead of only in his cell, as required by prison regulations, and that he grow a “fist-length” beard. The district court ruled in Ali’s favor following a July 2014 bench trial, and issued an injunction allowing him to wear his kufi and grow a longer beard.

Texas prison officials appealed. The court denied a stay of the appeal pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Holt, and the TDCJ implemented its new grooming policy that allows prisoners to grow a beard not longer than one-half inch for religious reasons, with prior approval by prison staff. There was no change in the TDCJ’s policy for religious headwear.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division filed an amicus brief in support of Ali; federal attorneys argued that Texas had “failed to show why, if kufis and beards can be managed in other prisons, they cannot be in Texas” – reasoning similar to that cited by the Supreme Court in Holt. However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office claimed that longer beards would pose a security concern and become “a hotbed of contraband trafficking” in state prisons.

In May 2016 the Fifth Circuit entered a ruling in favor of Ali, following Holt. While the Court of Appeals found the district court had “erred in concluding that TDCJ’s ban on four-inch beards did not satisfy the compelling-interest test,” it also held that a blanket ban on longer beards was not the least restrictive means to address the prison system’s security concerns. The appellate court also rejected the TDCJ’s arguments that longer beards would hinder searches for contraband, make it harder to identify prisoners who escape and lead to higher costs of prison operations. Similar arguments failed with respect to the wearing of kufis by Muslim prisoners. Accordingly, the district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Ali v. Stephens, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7964 (5th Cir. May 2, 2016).

Meanwhile, while the appeal was pending, the district court awarded Ali $214,160.44 in attorney fees and $16,312.72 in costs. See: Ali v. Quarterman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Texas), Case No. 9:09-cv-00052-ZJH.

Additional source: Dallas Morning News

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Related legal cases

Ali v. Quarterman

Ali v. Stephens