Federal appeals panel upholds Texas inmate grooming policy
A Texas prison grooming policy requiring inmates to have short hair and clean-shaven faces does not violate inmates' free exercise of religion rights, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.
Louis Ray Green, who goes by his Muslim name Habib A. K. Khidar, sued in federal court, contending that the policy discriminated against inmates who chose to wear long beards for religious reasons.
Khidar contended that wearing a beard was a tenet of his Islamic faith. He argued the policy was discriminatory in part because prison officials allowed inmates to wear beards as long as 3/4 inch for medical reasons, while denying him the right to wear a beard only 1/4 inch in length.
After a federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, Khidar appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Oct. 18, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit affirmed the lower court decision in Green v. Polunsky.
The 5th Circuit, like the lower court, analyzed the grooming policy under the test articulated by the Supreme Court in its 1987 decision Turner v. Safley. Under the Safley standard, a prison regulation that impinges on inmates' constitutional rights is legal as long as the regulation is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest, such as security or rehabilitation.
“First, the policy is neutral, affecting all inmates, regardless of their religious beliefs,” the panel wrote. “The neutral and universal application of a policy requiring short hair and clean-shaven faces serves the state's penological interests in a number of ways.”
The appeals court panel noted that regulating beard length helps prison guards identify inmates better and prevents inmates from changing appearance. Such regulations also serve security purposes since beards and hairstyles can be “used by inmates to signal gang affiliations,” the panel said.
The panel also rejected Khidar's argument that the policy was discriminatory because it allowed beards for medical reasons, but not for religious reasons. “The number of inmates warranting a medical exception to the grooming policy is quite small, but the number of inmates likely to seek qualification for a religious exception would be much greater,” the panel wrote.
The panel concluded by saying that the beard policy did not prohibit inmates from expressing their religious faiths. “It merely removes or reduces one of many avenues by which they may manifest their faith,” the panel wrote.