A Muslim inmate’s beard isn’t a security risk. It’s his constitutional right
The idea that any contraband could be hidden in a short beard is laughable. But trampling a man’s religious freedom isn’t funny
- theguardian.com, Wednesday 3 September 2014 12.04 EDT
In my communications with Muslim prisoners, many of whom have converted to Islam while in detention, I came to understand their struggles: incarceration is a dehumanizing experience. Prisoners who sit behind steel doors in cinder-block cells for months or even years can lose hope of a future – especially convicted felons, who know that their prospects of economic dignity upon release are almost non-existent. What keeps many of these men peaceful while incarcerated (and helps shield them from sinking into depression) is their faith.
But soon, the US supreme court will hear arguments as to whether a Muslim inmate has the right to wear a 13mm (0.5in) beard in an Arkansas prison. The inmate, Gregory H Holt, argues that he has a bona fide religious belief that is being impeded by the state by not allowing his long beard, while the government’s rebuttal is that such a beard poses a security threat to his person and other prisoners.
For Muslim prisoners unable to perform congregational prayers every day and who lack access to halal meat, something as seemingly mundane as a beard can be one of the few ways they are allowed to practice their faith.
As a Muslim who served in the US Navy, I understand how it feels to be separated from persons of my faith, as I was at sea during six-month deployments. Wearing a kufi cap during off-duty hours on the ship was my way of affirming my faith in an environment which I felt alone as a Muslim.
Over 40 states allow for beards shorter than the length of a dime to be worn by the incarcerated, though some allow for longer ones. Arkansas’s regulations, however, only allow “neatly trimmed” moustaches and beards up to a quarter of an inch for inmates who have dermatology issues like razor bumps.
Arkansas avers that it must ban the beards of prisoners such as Holt to maintain the integrity of its correctional facilitates, not to infringe on inmates’ freedom of religion. They bizarrely claim that contraband – such as marijuana or powdered drugs like cocaine and heroin – could be hidden in longer beards, as if buds of cannabis or baggies of dope would be undetectable in someone’s facial hair. (Of course, prisoners have other, less visible places to hide contraband – including in their own body cavities and inside their shoes.)
The idea that any contraband could be shielded from view nestled in a 13mm-long beard is laughable at best – and, as Holt argues, an intentional violation of his religious freedom at worst.
Prisoners of all faiths should be allowed to wear beards: it is not the job of American correctional facilities to mandate how people can wear their facial hair when everyday grooming is in keeping with their religious traditions. Making inmates conform to a clean-cut, less supposedly aggressive-looking appearance under the guise of maintaining security and order is hardly a compelling reason to violate their constitutional rights.
Given that the supreme court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that some corporations can refuse to provide contraceptive coverage to their workers on religious grounds, it will be interesting to see if justices grant the same deference to actual individuals’ religious rights as they did corporations. Arkansas’s discombobulated argument against Muslim inmates’ beards should make that easy.