The Supreme Court’s fall term starts next month, and one of the first cases it will hear involves a seemingly odd topic — beards on prisoners.
That case was brought by a Muslim inmate named Gregory Houston Holt who claims his prison violated his religious rights by refusing to let him grow a beard as his faith requires.
The state corrections department that runs that prison filed a lengthy brief claiming beards as short as half an inch long pose a security risk because inmates can hide contraband in them. Here are all the items inmates can theoretically hide in their short beards, according to that brief: needles, homemade, darts, bits of broken razors, drugs, and SIM cards for mobile phones (which are verboten in prison).
Inmates could also shave their beards and escape, that brief warned.
“Prisoners can be very creative in concocting plans for violence or escape,” it said.
Holt, who’s in prison for slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat, is serving time in an Arkansas prison with a strict anti-beard grooming policy. In June 2011 he filed suit against Arkansas Department of Corrections claiming the policy violated his right to exercise his religion.
A federal appeals court ruled against Holt, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case after he submitted a handwritten petition.
It’s hard to imagine why a state corrections department would be this staunchly opposed to a half-inch beard, but it is not alone. Holt’s brief — which he filed with the help of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the University of Virginia — identified 8 other states that prohibit beards, presumably because of similar security concerns.
While the issue of beards on prisoners might seem somewhat narrow, this is a case that lawyers are watching closely. Last term, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have religious rights when it found some employers didn’t have to pay for insurance that covered birth control. This is a different twist on the topic of religious freedom.
“After going out on a limb by providing newfound rights to corporations, are they now going to turn around and say that prisoners can’t grow beards?” Marci A. Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School said to The New York Times.
For the Arizona Department of Corrections, the case involves real security concerns, at least according to its brief.
“Prisons are dangerous places,” the brief said. “Correctional officers regularly work within striking distance of inmates who may decide to injure or kill the moment an opportunity avails itself.”
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