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Georgia Prison System Ordered to Amend Policy to Allow Three-Inch Beards

by David M. Reutter

A Georgia federal district court has held that a policy limiting prisoners’ beard length to half an inch without religious exemptions violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The court ordered the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) to allow eligible prisoners to grow a beard up to three inches long.

The ruling came after a bench trial in a civil rights action filed by state prisoner Lester James Smith, whom the court found had a “severe belief in the tenets of Islam, including the tenet that he not trim his beard and, if he must trim it, to maintain at least a fistful of beard hair.” His complaint alleged the GDOC denied his request for a religious accommodation because its policy prohibited prisoners from growing a beard longer than one-half inch for any reason. That policy was implemented following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015) [PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50].

After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment on August 7, 2019. It found that the GDOC’s grooming policy was under-inclusive, as it prohibited a type of activity to further the prison system’s interests but did not prohibit analogous conduct that poses similar risks to the same alleged interests. Specifically, the GDOC allows female prisoners to grow their hair to any length while male prisoners can grow hair to only three inches and beards to half an inch. The court noted that 37 states, as well as the District of Columbia and federal Bureau of Prisons, allow prisoners to grow beards without any length restrictions, either by policy or through an exemption.

The GDOC argued that prisoners can hide contraband in beards, but the evidence showed that prisoners can hide contraband “everywhere.” The prison system’s expert, Ronald Angelone, disputed the GDOC’s position by testifying that contraband in a beard does not present different risks or dangers than contraband in clothes, saying, “[t]hey’re all the same.” The district court found the GDOC failed to meet its burden of proving beards pose a risk if they are searched in the same manner as three-inch hair. It also found a long beard could not be more dangerous than female prisoners’ hair, which can be grown to any length.

In reference to the GDOC’s alleged hygienic concerns, its policy requires prisoners to keep their facial hair “clean and neat,” the court wrote. “It is simply hard to fathom how 3 inches of hair covering the entire head is permissible, but 3 inches of hair at the bottom of the face is unworkable.” While prison officials also argued security concerns were implicated “by an untrimmed, belt-buckle-length beard,” the court noted that the “GDOC has not shown that it could not effectively implement a three-inch beard policy and still successfully identify inmates after they shave.” On that point, the court said prison officials could require prisoners to shave periodically to take a clean-shaven picture.

Accordingly, the district court granted judgment in Smith’s favor and ordered the GDOC to change its policy to allow prisoners to have a three-inch beard. Smith was represented by attorneys Mark Goldfeder and Sarah Shalf with the Emory University School of Law, and by Max Thelen with The Summerville Firm, LLC. The defendants have since appealed the court’s judgment. See: Smith v. Dozier, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ga.), Case No. 5:12-cv-00026-WLS-CHW. 

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Related legal case

Smith v. Dozier