Indian inmates in Alabama lose decision over long hair policy

Inmates at a powwow at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington. Photo from Huy / Facebook

Indian inmates in Alabama must cut their hair even though it conflicts with their religious beliefs, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.

After being ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to take a second look at the case, the 11th Circuit arrived at the same conclusion it reached in July 2013. The Alabama Department of Corrections has not violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by requiring all inmates to keep their hair short, the per curiam decision stated.

"As we stated in our previous opinion, the ADOC has 'shown that plaintiffs’ requested exemption poses actual security, discipline, hygiene, and safety risks and neither we nor plaintiffs can 'point to a less restrictive alternative that accomplishes the ADOC’s compelling goals,'" the 11th Circuit stated.

The federal government and 39 states allow inmates to wear their hair long for religious reasons. Alabama's policy, however, does not recognize any exemptions.

"The evidence is that 39 jurisdictions allow long hair and do so safely," Joel West Williams, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, told the Associated Press.

Mark Sabel, an attorney for the inmates, plans to file an appeal, AL.Com reported. That could put the issue back before the Supreme Court, whose decision in Holt v. Hobbs -- another religious rights case -- forced the 11th Circuit to take another look at the long-hair policy.

In Holt, the Supreme Court held that a policy affecting the length of a Muslim inmate's beard violated the RLUIPA. The justices noted that the federal government, along with the "vast majority" of states, allow longer beards on inmates.

The 11th Circuit, however, said the situation in Alabama was different. The evidence presented in a lower court showed that the policy against long hair was based on addressing health, safety and other risks.

"For instance, while several of the written policies of other prison systems proffered by plaintiffs indicate that inmates generally have freedom in choosing their hair length, the policies make clear that the chosen hair length cannot pose risks for health, safety, hygiene, order, or security," the per curiam order stated. "Thus, it is not clear that these policies would allow for entirely unshorn hair."

The order was accompanied by a refiling of the June 2013 decision in the case. A few minor changes were made but they did not affect the outcome.

The Department of Justice intervened in the case, Knight v. Thompson, to support the Indian inmates, who filed their lawsuit in November 1993.

Get the Story:
Native Americans lose fight for long hair in prisons (AP 8/9)
11th Cir. Holds Long Hair May Impair Prison Safety (Courthouse News Service 8/7)
Court Says Alabama Prisons Can Force Native Americans To Break Sacred Traditions (Think Progress 8/7)
Alabama can require prisoners to cut their hair, despite religious beliefs, court rules (AL.Com 8/6)

11th Circuit Order:
Knight v. Thompson (August 5, 2015)

11th Circuit Decision:
Knight v. Thompson (August 5, 2015)

Earlier 11th Circuit Decision:
Knight v. Thompson (July 26, 2013)

Supreme Court Decision:
Holt v. Hobbs (January 20, 2015)

Related Stories:
Law Article: Indian inmate wins religious rights suit in Wisconsin (05/27)
Appeals court sides with Indian inmate in religious rights case (04/22)
8th Circuit rules against Indian inmate in religious rights case (01/27)
Supreme Court orders another decision in Indian inmates' case (01/26)
NARF: Supreme Court decision impacts rights of Indian inmates (1/23)

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