(CN) – Native American inmates in Alabama are not entitled to a religious exemption to wear their hair long, the 11th Circuit ruled.
In 1993, four male Native American inmates of the Alabama Department of Corrections challenged the department’s policy requiring inmates to wear a “regular hair cut,” defined as “off neck and ears.”
They argued that the policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, because wearing long hair is a central tenant of their religious faith. The federal government intervened on their behalf.
The corrections department countered by arguing that the policy was necessary to assist in the identification of escaped inmates who had altered their appearance by growing their hair long in prison.
It also claimed long hair would increase inmates’ ability to hide contraband, endangering prison staff, and allow inmates to pull each others’ hair during fights.
One prison official testified about an incident in which a black widow spider wove a nest in an inmate’s dreadlocks.
However, the Department’s witnesses conceded that female inmates are allowed to wear shoulder-length hair.
The inmates presented uncontroverted evidence that the Department’s haircut policy burdened their religious practice, and that a strong majority of U.S. jurisdictions allow a hair exemption for religious reasons.
Their expert also testified that long hair does not impede the identification of inmates, and long hair does not pose additional hygiene risks.
But Magistrate Judge Charles Coody found for the department, in part based on the Alabama prison system’s extreme overcrowding – the agency’s facilities were at almost 189 percent of capacity in 2008.
Given Alabama prisons’ overcrowding and underfunding, the judge decided that the policy provided a needed boost to security and hygiene.
Coody also noted that today’s inmates are “younger, bolder, and meaner” than those of previous years, and that other jurisdictions more permissive grooming policies are not certain proof of the feasibility of a policy change in Alabama.
The 11th Circuit affirmed Coody’s decision Wednesday, finding that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not give courts “carte blanche to second guess the reasoned judgments of prison officials.”
The court said it did not doubt the sincerity of the inmates religious convictions.
“The sincerity of these firmly-held beliefs – and the gravity of preventing their exercise – should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Biblical Scripture,” the court said, citing the story of Sampson and Delilah in a footnote.
Nevertheless, “the detailed record developed during the trial of this case amply supports the District Court’s factual findings about the risks and costs associated with permitting male inmates to wear long hair,” U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger said, writing for the three-judge panel.
Schlesginger sat on the panel by designation from the Middle District of Florida. Judges Frank Hull and R. Lanier Anderson joined the opinion.
The court said that “plaintiffs’ heavy fixation on the policies of other jurisdictions misses the mark. … The RLUIPA does not pit institutions against one another in a race to the top of the risk-tolerance or cost-absorption ladder.”
Just because other corrections departments around the country allow a long hair exemption, does not invalidate Alabama’s calculated decision not to adopt the risks of such an exemption, the panel ruled.
The judges also agreed with Coody that male and female inmates may be given different grooming policies given that men pose a greater security risk to prison staff than women.
“The ADOC might find persuasive James Madison’s admonition that ‘[i]t is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him,’ and ‘[t]his duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society,'” Schlesginger concluded. “But that is a decision that the RLUIPA leaves to the discretion of the ADOC’s policy-makers.”
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