Supreme Court rules for Native American inmates in Alabama

Doug Dark Horns Bailey talks about trying to practice his religious beliefs during the more than 18 years he spent in prison.

Doug Dark Horns Bailey talks about trying to practice his religious beliefs during the more than 18 years he spent in prison.

From Montgomery Observer

The U.S. Supreme Court says a lower court must reconsider whether Native Americans in Alabama prisons can have longer hair.

The high court on Monday reversed an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had upheld an Alabama Department of Corrections policy saying Native American inmates had to keep their hair cut short, which Native Americans argue deny them their right to religious expression.

As is often the case, the justices did not issue an opinion with its ruling, but ordered the 11th Circuit to reconsider the decision in light of its ruling last week in Holt v. Hobbs. In that case, the court ruled that the Arkansas Department of Correction could not deny a Muslim inmate’s request to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs, saying the state had failed to show a compelling reason to deny the request.

Bob Horton, a spokesman for ADOC, said in a statement that the decision was expected.

“Until the 11th Circuit has a hearing and offers a ruling, ADOC will continue to enforce its current policy,” the statement said.

Mark Sabel, an attorney for the inmates, said Monday they had “eagerly awaited the decision.”

“My clients have renewed hope they will be permitted to wear unshorn hair in the time-honored tradition of their ancestors,” he said.

The decision is part of an ongoing lawsuit, first filed in 1993, over Native American inmates and their right to practice religious expression within Alabama prisons. Some of the initial plaintiffs have since passed away; Sabel said five remain incarcerated.

The inmates involved have seen significant gains in their way of practice, but DOC held the line at hair length, arguing that long hair could potentially be used to smuggle contraband into prisons and could make it easier for an escaped inmate to alter his appearance.

Although specific faith traditions differ according to the tribe, Native American inmates have argued that long hair is sacred and a critical part of their practices. More than three-quarters of the state prison systems in the nation and the Federal Bureau of Prisons grant hair policy exemptions to Native American prisoners.

The lawsuit argued that DOC was violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which forbids governments from imposing a “substantial burden” on religious practice unless they can show the burden is “the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.”

DOC initially won its case at the 11th Circuit in 2013, with the court writing that RLUIPA “does not prevent the ADOC from making its own reasoned assessment” on what constitutes safety.

“Inmates can manipulate searches of their own hair to conceal weapons and contraband, and using a computer program to alter photographs does nothing to address the impediments that long hair causes for the identification of inmates within the prisons,” the court wrote. “‘Plaintiffs’ proposed alternative also does nothing to assuage the ADOC’s concerns about gang-formation and hairpulling during fights, or the concealment of infections and infestations. Plaintiffs cannot point to a less restrictive alternative that accomplishes the ADOC’s compelling goals, and neither can we.”

The Arkansas Department of Correction advanced similar arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, saying the system had a compelling interest in regulating contraband and in preventing inmates from altering their appearance. Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Samuel Alito rejected the state’s arguments, saying in one section that RLIUPA “does not permit such unquestioning deference” to a correctional system.

“Prison officials are experts in running prisons and evaluating the likely effects of altering prison rules, and courts should respect that expertise,” Alito wrote. “But that respect does not justify the abdication of the responsibility, conferred by Congress, to apply RLUIPA’s rigorous standard. And without a degree of deference that is tantamount to unquestioning acceptance, it is hard to swallow the argument that denying (the) petitioner a half-inch beard actually furthers the Department’s interest in rooting out contraband.”

Sabel, citing the positive effect religious practice can have on recidivism, said he hoped to see a new policy in place soon.

“Prisons, when allowing religious practices, promote public safety and the safety of prisons,” he said.