The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously struck down an Arkansas prison ban on inmate beards, in a remarkable legal victory for an habitual offender-turned-devout Muslim who started off representing himself.
In an emphatic 9-0 decision, the court’s liberals and conservatives united in concluding the prison’s grooming policy violated the religious rights of the prisoner known both as Gregory Holt and Abdul Maalik Muhammad. He challenged the Arkansas Department of Corrections officials who denied him his request to grow a half-inch beard.
“We do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote, but added that “the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests.”
Pointedly, Alito noted that “the vast majority of states and the federal government permit inmates to grow half-inch beards, either for any reason or for religious reasons.”
Holt is a designated habitual offender, serving a life sentence at the state’s Varner Supermax prison. He has previously pleaded guilty to threatening the daughters of President George W. Bush. He was convicted of slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat and stabbing her in the chest, and has threatened to “wage jihad” against various individuals.
Holt, who is Caucasian, took the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad amid his conversion to Islam. Citing hadith, which are accounts of the statements made by the Prophet Muhammad, Holt said it was his religious obligation to grow a beard.
Holt took an uphill path to the Supreme Court, starting with a handwritten petition he filed on his own behalf. Against all odds, the court plucked his challenge from among roughly 9,000 other petitions.
Myriad allies subsequently lined up in support of Holt, ranging from the Obama administration to a former warden at California’s San Quentin State Prison. During oral argument last October, Holt was represented by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock, a prominent advocate in religious liberty cases.
Holt challenged the no-beard rule under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law states the government cannot impose a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of an inmate unless it is the “least restrictive means” of meeting a “compelling government interest.”
A key question was how much deference should be granted to prison authorities in keeping facilities secure. Prisons, like the military and the overall national security apparatus, often command considerable deference from judges. Arkansas asserted, in part, that prisoners might hide weapons or other contraband in beards. The court disagreed.
“The argument that this (security) interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously,” Alito wrote.
Alito added that the court was “unpersuaded” by claims that inmates might disguise themselves by growing and then shaving beards.
Eighteen states, including Kansas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, supported Arkansas. Whatever their inmate grooming policies may be, they echoed the Arkansas argument that courts should accept the states’ judgments about maintaining prison safety.