Prison's ban on beards and caps violated Muslim prisoner's rights, rules Fifth Circuit

Ali v. Stephens, No. 14-41165 (5th Cir. May 2, 2016).

An observant Muslim wearing a kufi, also called a taqiyah. Many Muslims believe that Muhammad's sayings enjoin them to wear kufis. (Credit: Neil Moralee / flickr.)

An observant Muslim wearing a kufi, also called a taqiyah. Many Muslims believe that Muhammad's sayings enjoin them to wear kufis. (Credit: Neil Moralee / flickr.)

David Rasheed Ali, a Texas prisoner and observant Muslim, was forbidden to wear a kufi and a four-inch beard, both of which are required by his religious beliefs. Believing these prohibitions violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, he sued the warden of his prison. After a trial, the district court ruled in Ali’s favor, finding that the warden’s bans on religious headwear and four-inch beards violated RLUIPA because they didn’t further a compelling interest in the least restrictive way.

The warden has appealed, arguing that his bans further several compelling interests. The bans prevent inmates from storing contraband in their beards or under their hats. They allow prison guards to identify inmates readily—and also allow outsiders to identify inmates if they escape, because, as in The Fugitive, you can alter your appearance radically just by shaving off your beard. The bans, according to the warden, also make running the prison less expensive and complicated. 

Deferring to the district court as the factfinder, the Fifth Circuit disagrees with the warden and affirms—at times, it seems, with some reluctance. 

The district court found that guards can search beard hair for contraband as easily as they do head hair—and the prison doesn’t ban head hair, so why does it have to ban Ali’s beard? The same goes for a kufi: the prison can just search under it for contraband. As for in-prison identification, a kufi makes prisoners more distinguishable, not less. If the prison is concerned about Ali’s beard obscuring his identity, the prison should just make sure that his identification photo displays him with a beard. And, while shaving a beard can help an escaped inmate elude the authorities, so can many other things, too. Shaving one’s head after an escape would help too—and, to repeat, the prison doesn’t make prisoners shave their heads. The Fifth Circuit also affirms the district court’s finding that the increase in expense to the prison is minimal and cannot justify the bans on Ali’s beard and kufi.