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Native American Prisoners Win Lawsuit Over Right to Wear Long Hair

by Matt Clarke 

On January 24, 2019, a Texas federal district court held that three Native American prisoners had the right to wear long hair as required by their religious beliefs.

Teddy Norris Grey Hawk Davis, Robbie Dow Goodman, William Casey and Raymond Cobbs, who are adherents of a Native American religion, were incarcerated at the McConnell Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Their faith required them to wear long hair, but TDCJ policy prohibits male prisoners from having hair below the ears. 

In 2012, Davis filed a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the TDCJ’s grooming policy infringed on his religious rights in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000-cc-l. After Davis was released, which extinguished his claim for injunctive relief, Goodman, Casey and Cobbs joined the suit so it could continue. By the time a bench trial was held in August 2018, they were represented by counsel – including attorneys R. Paul Yetter, Robert Ellis and Steven Messer with the Houston law firm of Yetter Coleman, LLP.

Although the TDCJ’s grooming policy prohibits long hair for males, it allows female prisoners to wear long hair. In a 23-page ruling, the district court noted that prison officials conceded the disparity in the male and female grooming policies was unrelated to any difference in propensity for violence, smuggling contraband or hygiene. The court also observed that jails throughout the country, as well as the federal prison system and all but eight state DOCs, permit male prisoners to have long hair.

TDCJ Correctional Institutions Division Director Lorrie Davis testified that she had never found contraband of any kind in long, loose hair, and had only discovered nuisance contraband in braided hair. Joan Palmateer, the plaintiffs’ expert, testified likewise. That cast doubt on the TDCJ’s claims regarding contraband being hidden in long hair. 

Similarly, Palmateer and the TDCJ’s own witnesses undercut claims that long hair could be used to commit suicide, provided a way to hold an opponent during a fight, would make non-Native Americans jealous, would make identification in prison or after an escape more difficult, would cause hygiene issues, or would stress the prison system’s staffing by extending the time it takes to search prisoners. Most of the TDCJ’s arguments were also undermined by its failure to apply the same grooming policy to women prisoners. 

The TDCJ was unable to show that searches would take longer or states that allow male prisoners to wear long hair required additional staffing or a larger budget. Further, only a small number of Texas prisoners identified as Native Americans – 5,617 out of 148,000 state prisoners. 

The TDCJ was also unable to show that the plaintiffs posed any particular danger to security. All were older, low-security prisoners with little or no history of disciplinary violations. Therefore, the district court entered judgment in their favor.

“Religious liberty is a bedrock value,” said Ellis. “It’s also a nonpartisan issue so it’s especially important for minority groups like Native Americans whose views aren’t as well known or accepted.” 

The plaintiffs had spent decades in prison and came to realize that they may die there. That prompted the lawsuit, because dying without braided long hair would create a risk of being rejected by their Native American ancestors when “crossing over.” Goodman also explained that long hair connected him to his creator.

“It’s just like the roots of a tree,” he said. “It connects us.” 

“Inmates being able to fully express and practice their religion is rehabilitative and reduces recidivism,” added Messer. “It’s just good policy.” 

The TDCJ apparently disagreed, however, and appealed to the Fifth Circuit on March 27, 2019. Meanwhile, the district court awarded $9,803.19 in costs to the plaintiffs, who are also seeking more than $148,000 in attorney fees. See: Goodman v. Davis, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00166. 


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Related legal case

Goodman v. Davis