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Eleventh Circuit Upholds Alabama DOC Short Hair Policy Following Remand from Supreme Court

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) does not overcome the Alabama Department of Corrections’ (ADOC) “short hair policy” for prisoners, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held.

The ruling was issued on remand from the U.S. Supreme Court in light of its opinion in Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015) [PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50], which permitted a Muslim prisoner to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The case at issue dates back to 1993 and was brought by Native American prisoners who asserted the ADOC’s grooming policy violated their religious requirement to wear their hair unshorn. The Eleventh Circuit initially affirmed the district court’s judgment that the policy did not violate RLUIPA. [See: PLN, Sept. 2014, p.43].

On remand from the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs raised three arguments addressing why Holt should change the outcome in their case. The Court of Appeals addressed and rejected each argument.

First, the plaintiffs alleged the district court had failed to engage in a “focused inquiry” that the ADOC’s grooming policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in prison safety and security. The appellate court disagreed, holding the district court had found that prisoners “can use long hair to alter their appearances, long hair impedes the ability of officers to quickly identify inmates in the prison and inmates can use long hair to identify with special groups, including gangs.”

Next, the Court of Appeals rejected the argument that the district court had applied “unquestioning deference” to prison officials’ testimony. In Holt, prison officials “provided largely conclusionary and speculative testimony in justification of their no-beard policy.”

In this case, by contrast, the ADOC had presented witnesses who “elucidat[ed] expert opinions, lay testimony and anecdotal evidence based on their decades of experience as corrections officers,” the Eleventh Circuit wrote. The witnesses offered more than “speculation, exaggerated fears or post-hoc rationalizations” in the “detailed record developed during the trial.”

Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the district court had “erred in disregarding the evidence presented below that the prison systems in 39 other states would allow the religious accommodation Plaintiffs request.”

In Holt, it was determined that the vast majority of prison systems allow prisoners to grow half-inch beards for religious or any other reasons. However, the Eleventh Circuit noted it was not apparent on the record that 39 other prison systems would allow prisoners to have long, unshorn hair.

The appellate court said that while written policies from other prison systems indicated prisoners “generally have freedom in choosing their hair length, the policies make clear that the chosen hair length cannot pose risks for health, safety, hygiene, order, or security.”

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals found neither it nor the plaintiffs could “point to a less restrictive alternative that accomplishes the ADOC’s compelling goals” in promoting safety and security. Further, “unlike in Holt, the district court here did not defer to the ADOC’s ‘mere say-so’ that it could not accommodate Plaintiffs’ requested accommodation even though other prison systems offer such an accommodation....” Therefore, the district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Knight v. Thompson, 796 F.3d 1289 (11th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Knight v. Thompson