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Fifth Circuit: Louisiana Must Allow Prisoner to Wear Dreadlocks

by Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s judgment dismissing a lawsuit brought by a prisoner who sought an injunction requiring the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) to allow him to wear dreadlocks. In its decision, the Court declared the DOC’s grooming policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and enjoined the DOC from enforcing it as to the plaintiff.

Christopher Jerome Ware, a Louisiana state prisoner, was incarcerated at the Bossier Parish Medium Security Jail awaiting transfer to the DOC. Ware had been a Rastafarian since 2011 or 2012, and wore dreadlocks – self-described “compacted strands of ‘coarse-feeling, flexible’ hair” that extended to just below his shoulders. His religious beliefs required that he not cut or style his hair; the dreadlocks were not braided and were no more than 1 inch thick.

The Bossier Parish jail permitted dreadlocks, but the DOC’s grooming policy did not.

Anticipating problems upon his transfer to state prison, Ware filed a federal lawsuit alleging the DOC’s grooming policy violated RLUIPA by imposing a substantial burden on his religious beliefs. Following a two-day bench trial during which eight witnesses testified, the district court found “the grooming policy was the least restrictive means of achieving four legitimate and compelling DOC interests: (1) contraband control, (2) offender identification, (3) offender hygiene, and (4) inmate and employee safety.” Ware appealed.

On July 28, 2017, the Fifth Circuit held that since the parties agreed Ware’s religious beliefs were sincere, the DOC was required to show that its grooming policy served a compelling interest and was the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. Ware argued the policy was underinclusive, as it excluded women prisoners and state prisoners held in parish jails. The appellate court accepted that the contraband problem among female prisoners was quantitatively different. However, it questioned the DOC’s rationale as to why half its prisoners – those housed at parish jails – did not have to adhere to the grooming policy.

The DOC requires state prisoners held in parish jails to comply with numerous other DOC policies in its Basic Jail Guidelines. Not requiring them to adhere to the grooming policy “raises the inference that the grooming policies are not so important after all.” The DOC’s explanations that the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association had requested that the grooming policy not be applied to jails, and the fact that there were mixtures of different types of prisoners in the jails, simply did not explain the application of some DOC regulations and not others.

“The DOC offered no evidence to support its bare assertion that dreadlocks among parish inmates presented less of a risk to the DOC’s asserted interests than dreadlocks among DOC prisoners would,” the Court of Appeals wrote. Therefore, the DOC failed to show a compelling interest in maintaining its grooming policy with respect to dreadlocks.

Even had it shown a compelling interest, the DOC did not explain why its grooming policy was different from the 39 other jurisdictions, including the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, that allow prisoners to have dreadlocks. The DOC’s explanation of budget cuts and staffing shortages simply did not evidence unique factors faced by Louisiana’s prison system. Because the DOC failed to meet its burden when given a full and fair opportunity to do so during a two-day bench trial, the Fifth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court, entered judgment declaring that the DOC’s grooming policy violated RLUIPA as applied to Ware’s dreadlocks, and enjoined the DOC from applying the policy to him.

The defendants’ petition to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking certiorari review was denied on February 26, 2018. See: Ware v. Louisiana Department of Corrections, 866 F.3d 263 (5th Cir. 2017), cert. denied. 

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Related legal case

Ware v. Louisiana Department of Corrections