A unanimous Supreme Court ruling has invalidated an Arkansas state prison rule that barred inmates from growing beards measuring more than a quarter of an inch long. The rule had been challenged by inmate Gregory Holt, a Muslim man who had asked for permission to grow a half-inch-long beard as a compromise from the full beard he believes is required by his faith. In a ruling announced Tuesday, the Supreme Court said the policy violated Holt’s religious beliefs.
Arkansas was virtually alone in having such a restrictive rule on beards. Holt — who is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad — had argued in a handwritten plea to the court that the state’s refusal to grant exceptions was oppressive and forced inmates “to either obey their religious beliefs and face disciplinary action on the one hand, or violate those beliefs in order to acquiesce” to the grooming policy. The Supreme Court had earlier granted Holt’s request to maintain a half-inch long beard while his case worked its way through the appeals process. Holt, who did time for making a threat against President Bush’s daughters before being convicted in 2010 of knifing his girlfriend, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010.
The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, said the state has a legitimate need to prevent the concealment of contraband, which was its stated reason for the policy. But, Alito said, “the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard is hard to take seriously.”
“An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1⁄2-inch beard, and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out. Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1⁄2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head,” Alito said.