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Eleventh Circuit Defers to Alabama DOC on Short Hair Requirement

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled against a class of prisoners who challenged the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) hair-length policy as a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

The August 5, 2015 ruling upheld the district court's granting of summary judgment in favor of the ADOC. At issue was the ADOC policy which requires all prisoners to wear a "regular hair cut," defined as "off neck and ears." A group of male prisoners challenged the policy as an unlawful restriction on their religion because wearing long hair is a central tenet of their religious faith. The United States intervened in the case on behalf of the plaintiff prisoners, arguing that the policy violated the RLUIPA.

Because the RLUIPA does not allow the government to impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of prisoners, any such regulation must be shown to be the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest. In this case, there was no dispute that the hair-length policy constituted a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by some prisoners. Indeed, un-contradicted evidence was presented that "forcing Native Americans to cut their long hair would amount to an 'assault on their sacredness.'" The only question was whether the policy was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

Despite the fact that the correctional systems of 38 states as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons somehow manage to function just fine while allowing a prisoner the religious freedom to choose his or her hair length, the Eleventh Circuit found that the ADOC policy was, in fact, the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

The court cited the ADOC concerns that long-haired prisoners would hide contraband in their hair, frustrate attempts at identification, impede good hygiene and health, and increase the risk of fights and escapes. In support of these far-fetched "concerns," the court credited the ADOC expert's testimony that prisoners had hidden razor blades, ice picks, handcuff keys, wires and bolts in their hair. The expert, Ronald Angelone, further testified about an incident in which a black widow spider wove a nest in a prisoner's dreadlocks.

In finding a compelling government interest, the court dismissed the plaintiffs' contentions that prisoners have many, much easier to use places to store contraband, that long hair does not impede identification in the 21st century, and that long hair does not impose health risks as long as well-established basic hygiene practices are observed.

Is the ADOC policy really the least restrictive means to further the compelling interest of institutional safety, security and good hygiene, though? The Eleventh Circuit said yes. But this is hard to square with the fact that the overwhelming majority of American prison systems do not find it necessary to force prisoners to cut their hair. They somehow manage to be just as safe, secure and hygienic as the ADOC, even with long-haired prisoners who can properly practice their religion.

It is more likely that the ADOC hair-length policy is an outdated and morally untenable method of controlling inmates by stepping all over their religious beliefs. Indeed, the court acknowledged that controlling inmates is an important function of the ADOC and its policies. The large majority of states and the federal government have moved beyond interfering with the freedom to exercise religion as a weapon to control prisoners, but Alabama has not.

See: Knight v. Thompson, 797 F.3d 934 (11th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

Knight v. Thompson