Texas prison officials cannot prohibit Muslim inmates from growing a beard up to four inches long or from donning religious head wear, a federal appeals court has ruled.
David Rasheed Ali, serving concurrent 20-year sentences for arson and aggravated robbery, filed suit seven years ago arguing that the tenets of his religion required him to wear a beard and a kufi, a knit skullcap.
When Ali sued, prison policy required inmates to be clean shaven, although those with skin conditions could grow a quarter-inch beard. Last year, however, Texas began allowing inmates to grow a half-inch beard as part of their religious practice after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners had a right to wear facial hair to express their faith.
Ali’s lawsuit continued because he was seeking to wear a four-inch beard and because he wanted to wear a kufi in all areas of prison, not only in his cell or during religious services as allowed by Texas prison policy.
Prison officials argued that a longer beard and kufi posed security risks, making it easier to hide contraband and more difficult to identify inmates — either by hiding tattoos and other distinctive marks inside prison, or by allowing escaped inmates to quickly change their appearance.
But in a ruling delivered Monday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Texas prison system’s grooming and religious head wear policies violated a federal law that protects the religious practice of inmates.
“Although we must respect a prison official’s expertise” on safety matters, Justice Edward Prado wrote for the court’s three-judge panel, the U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act requires policies that infringe on religious practice to be the “least restrictive” possible.
Under the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s procedures, corrections officers require inmates with longer hair to shake it out with their fingers to prove it is free of contraband — a policy that would work on four-inch beards as well, Prado wrote.
“TDCJ could revoke an inmate’s beard privilege if he abused it or refused to comply with the searches,” Prado said, adding that the same confiscation policy also applies to kufis and other religious head wear.
The ruling affirmed a 2014 judgment by U.S. Magistrate Zack Hawthorn in Beaumont, who ordered prison officials to allow Ali, 33, to grow a longer beard and wear a kufi throughout the Michael Unit in Tennessee Colony. Ali, a trusty, lives in a dorm outside the prison’s fence line, court records showed.
“We are reviewing the opinion and have no further comment at this time,” Texas prisons spokesman Jason Clark said Tuesday.