Prison Grooming Policy Changes Coming in the Wake of Holt v. Hobbs


By: Coleen Hosack

Native American men imprisoned in the United States will probably be the first to notice institutional changes to prison policies regarding whether prisoners can grow their hair long, following the Holt v. Hobbs decision by the United Supreme Court on January 20, 2015.  Long hair, for Native American men, is not a matter of appearance, style, or grooming; but a religious practice. Natives believe that long hair represents the strength of their spirit; the longer the hair, the stronger the spirit.  When a native does cut his hair, it is usually only for mourning the death of a loved one. See – web page devoted to the discussion of political, social, and economic issues affecting the indigenous peoples of the United States, like Native American men.

In Holt, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) finally cut its teeth in a unanimous opinion by the United States Supreme Court.  Gregory Holt, an inmate and devout Muslim incarcerated in an Arkansas prison, sought and was denied permission to grow a ½-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs due to a prison policy that forbid prisoners from growing beards unless they could show a dermatological condition.  The Court concluded under RLUIPA, the Department’s policy substantially burdened his religious exercise and that the Department failed to show the policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest of prison safety.

Congress enacted RLUIPA to provide broader protection for religious liberties because the Free Exercise clause failed to reach laws that incidentally burdened the free exercise of religion, like grooming policies in federal prisons. Following the Court’s application of RLUIPA in this setting, prisons must justify that their policies [policies that substantially burden an inmate’s ability to exercise his religious beliefs] are the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. In other words, these policies are subject to strict scrutiny. While courts can certainly continue to respect a prison official’s expert opinion or position on the purpose of such a policy; that opinion can no longer stand as the only justification for the policy.

Under RLUIPA, Hobbs shouldered the initial burden of proving the policy implicated his religious exercise. It protects “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious beliefs.” §2000cc-5(7)(A). A prisoner’s request for an accommodation must be sincerely based on a religious belief and not some other motivation. See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2774, n. 28 (2014).  Rejecting the District Court’s finding that the grooming policy did not substantially burden his religious exercise, the Court held that the availability of alternatives means of practicing religion, like being provided a prayer rug or given information on distributors of Islamic material, was not the appropriate standard under RLUIPA, although it is in First Amendment cases involving prisoner’s rights. See. e.g. O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 351-352 (1987); see also Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 90 (1987).  The Court held that under RLUIPA, Hobbs easily satisfied his burden of showing the policy substantially burdened the exercise of religion because the Department policy subjected him to serious disciplinary action if he contravened the policy by keeping his beard. RLUIPA focuses on the burden to the religious practice sought to be exercised, not whether the inmate can practice his religion in other ways.

The burden then shifted to the Department to show its refusal to allow him to grow a ½-inch beard was in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The Department claimed two interests: that the no-beard policy prevented prisoners from hiding contraband and the policy prevented prisoners from disguising their identities. Agreeing that both of these interests were compelling; the Court rejected the Department’s argument that it had chosen the least restrictive means to achieve its goals.  For instance, the Department already searched hair and clothing, so why could it not search ½-inch beards too.  As for the goal of preventing prisoners from disguising identities, the Department could take before-beard and after-beard photographs that could then be used for identification purposes under any circumstance.

While Holt involved the application of a prison no-beard policy, I think the decision will have a ripple effect on all prison grooming policies. Whether prisons will simply rescind their no-long hair policies altogether, like Arkansas just did,, or whether they will create additional religious exemptions for inmates to grow their hair, like Native Americans want to do for religious purposes, will remain to be seen.  Either way, I think they are coming.