This week, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals told Texas prisons that they can no longer prevent Muslim inmates from growing four-inch beards or wearing skullcaps, called kufis, for religious reasons.
The suit was brought by an inmate named David Rasheed Ali, who is serving 20 years for arson. His attorney, Eric Albritton, says Ali is a devout Muslim and studied the religion intently for years. But when he was repeatedly forbidden to grow his beard to fist-length — which Ali firmly believed Islam required him to do — and to wear his kufi outside of his cell, Albritton said Ali felt as if he had been blocked from fully practicing his religion. When he grew out his beard longer than the allowed half-inch, Albritton said, he was written up. “It was very upsetting to him,” Albritton said. “He fought quite a bit on his own.”
In arguing why it prohibited inmates from growing long beards or wearing kufis, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it was an issue of safety, that inmates could hide contraband in their beards or caps or grow long beards to more easily obscure their identity, according to the Fifth Circuit opinion. TDCJ even argued that requiring guards to conduct searches would amount to well over 100 hours of beard- and hat-searching per day, and they would lose more than a million dollars in salary money as a result.
The Fifth Circuit struck all that down, saying that these reasons were not good enough to justify stripping someone of the ability to practice their religion.
"I think what's really wonderful about this is not only on a personal level does Mr. Ali get to practice his religion, but [the ruling] also benefits society as a whole," Albritton said. "Folks that are allowed to practice their religion are less likely to have problems in the penitentiary, the prison's safer, and they're less likely to re-offend when they get out. Simply put, religion's important, and this recognizes that."
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Mustafa Carroll, the executive director of the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that about 15 percent of discrimination complaints the council receives come from people in prison. Many in the past, he said, have been about the bans on growing beards or wearing the caps, but many inmates have also been denied access to halal food during the Islamic holiday Ramadan, or denied prayer rugs or even Korans.
“It does damage. All that does is increase the probability that someone's going to leave than they came in, if you're going to deny them access to their belief system, or to worship as they see fit,” Carroll said. “You should be encouraging them to worship. So it's really unfortunate, to say the least.”
Carroll said that's why this court ruling, though it's not a fix-all, is paramount. Now, when they follow up on inmate complaints and call TDCJ, “we'll have a stronger leg to stand on,” he said.
TDCJ did not comment on the case except to say it is reviewing the court's opinion.