Eleventh Circuit Upholds Alabama Department of Corrections Inmate Hair-Length Policy

In Knight v. Thompson, No. 12-11926, 2015 WL 4638873 (11th Cir. Aug. 5, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit upheld the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) hair-length policy, finding the inmate hair-length requirement to be the least restrictive means of furthering the ADOC’s compelling interests.

The ADOC requires that all male inmates maintain a short haircut, defined as “off the neck and ears.” Plaintiffs, who are inmates under the custody of the ADOC, sought a religious exemption from the policy, seeking to wear long hair in accordance with their Native American religious beliefs. Plaintiffs argued specifically that the policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc (2000) which prevents the Government from imposing a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of a person confined in an institution unless the Government can demonstrate that imposing the burden is: (1) in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. The ADOC conceded that the policy substantially burdens plaintiffs’ religious exercise, but the district court found that the ADOC met the RLUIPA standard. The question of whether this standard was satisfied was revisited on appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit first determined that the ADOC did have compelling interests in inmate “security, discipline, hygiene, and safety.” The court noted the extensive testimony in the lower court of specific instances in which inmates had used long hair to conceal weapons and alter their appearance by cutting their hair after escaping custody. Further testimony showed that prison staff had injured their hands on hidden razors when searching the hair of inmates and that long hair had previously concealed fungus, cysts, and even a spider’s nest. Witnesses also testified that long hair can be pulled during fights and can serve as a distinctive basis for forming gangs. As such, the court concluded that the short-hair policy furthers the compelling interest of maintaining safety in prisons.

The court also determined that the policy was the least restrictive means of furthering the ADOC’s interests. The court found that plaintiffs’ proposed alternatives—requiring inmates to search their own hair and using computer programs to help identify inmates by altering their photographs—did nothing to address the ADOC’s safety concerns. Plaintiffs further argued that the least-restrictive prong was not met because: (1) the ADOC failed to consider other alternatives before adopting its policy, (2) other jurisdictions allowed for religious exemptions, and (3) the ADOC permitted female inmates to wear shoulder-length hair. The court rejected these arguments in turn, noting that the RLUIPA does not necessitate consideration of other alternatives, that other jurisdictions’ practices may be relevant but are not controlling, and that because men pose greater threats in prison populations than women, a uniform policy is not required. Because neither plaintiffs nor the court itself could point to a less restrictive alternative, the court found that the ADOC had carried its burden under the RLUIPA standard.

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